Competing Historical Narratives: Abbas and Netanyahu at the United Nations


In our ministry of reconciliation, we have discovered the centrality of historical narrative in the conflict. The stories of our people, who we are and what we have been through, define us, and many times, fuel the conflict between us as well. We constantly appeal to our narrative and rely on it for legitimization while sometimes wielding it as a weapon against those who have an opposing narrative. We recently saw this element of our conflict displayed before the leaders of the world at the end of September when Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas presented their case at the United Nations, and talked past each other, consciously excluding the other in their self-representation and recounting of their respective hope for peace.
We encounter this same sort of rhetoric in our work, and participants in our reconciliation encounters echo the same sentiments when discussing history and narrative, particularly in the context of identity.  Usually in the second stage of reconciliation, the “Opening Up” stage, participants find their identity challenged as they begin to share about their lives and the conflict, and all of a sudden, realize that the other side also claims the title of hero and victim, making themselves the default antagonist and aggressor. Hearing this challenges one’s own narrative and begins a process of soul-searching and reflection. Identity plays an important role in subsequent stages three and four, the “Withdrawal” and “Reclaiming Identity” stages.
Narrative in its most basic form is storytelling. It is sometimes confused with history, which is a type of narrative, as history attempts to tell a story of what happened and paint a contextualized picture for the hearer. It differs in that history is an academic field in which individuals’ study the human past based on evidence and attempt to prove what happened. Narrative does not require the use of sources, and very often, is connected with oral tradition; it embraces subjectivity and its limited perspective. Unlike history, narrative does not attempt to prove what happened, it simply tells. Many times, historians try and portray what happened objectively, regardless of the shortcomings of this methodology. On the other hand, narrative does not strive for objectivity; it attempts to draw the hearer into its story, and the very telling of the story is evidence that it is true. While history and narrative are related, they are also distinct. Narrative and history both need and inform each other. Narrative without history would lead to a story occurring without context. History without narrative would be a list of graphs and statistics without a connecting story between the facts. In conflict situations, these two merge more closely, and each side has a historical narrative made up of truth and myth in which “our side” is portrayed in a positive light, and “we” are always the protagonist hero and victim in “our historical narrative.”
We saw elements of the Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives in the recent UN speeches. Abbas opened his speech emphasizing the Palestinians’ openness to previous negotiations, their tireless attempts at presenting their position, and their sincerity during the process. But these endeavors proved futile, primarily as a result of Israel’s refusal to “commit to terms of reference” and its continued engagement in settlement activities. From the beginning, Abbas, in effect, presented the Palestinians as the protagonists who are committed to a two-state solution, arguing that the Palestinians are the reasonable party as the Palestinians came to the negotiating table sincerely and were willing to compromise; the Israelis then are the antagonists, unreasonable and unwilling to compromise. Throughout his speech he discussed the effects of the occupation on Palestinians, and recounts the Nakba of 1948 in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were exiled from their homes. In effect, he established the Palestinians as the victims of the conflict. While renouncing terrorism and violence and affirming peaceful resistance to Israel, he never recognized the detrimental and traumatizing effects of violent Palestinian actions against Israel. He talked about the Holy Land being a land holy to Muslims and Christians, pointedly excluding the Jewish people from their historical and religious connection to the Holy Land. In spite of the Palestinian people he detailed throughout his speech, he emphasized that the Palestinian people extend their hand to Israel for peace.
When Netanyahu gave his speech responding to Abbas, he constantly emphasized that Israel also extends its hand to the Palestinian people in peace. He stressed Israel’s constant hope for peace and its willingness to make sacrifices for peace, not only with the Palestinians, but with the rest of the Middle Eastern world. In effect, he presented Israel as the peace-seeking protagonist, summoning the Palestinian people back to negotiations. He rhetorically reasoned with his audience, asking if they would wish for danger so close to their cities and families, reminding his audience of the resultant barrage of rockets that followed Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He discussed the suffering of the Israeli people as a result of the rockets fired by Hezbollah in the north and Hamas from Gaza, presenting Israel as the victims of the conflict, never recognizing the detrimental and traumatizing effects of Israeli actions on Palestinians. Consequently, he presented Israel as reasonable in its demand for military presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as he argued this is necessary for Israel’s security. In effect, he showed that the Palestinians do not understand and are not reasonable in their requests. He argued that the primary issue is that the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Toward the end of his speech, he discussed the ancient and undying Jewish connection to the land of Israel, but he pointedly failed to mention (thereby excluding) any comparable connection the Palestinian people have to the land, giving only a brief nod to them in closing as they “dwell” on the land.
Is it not interesting to note that reading between the lines, they are mirrors of each other? One side is reasonable, the other unreasonable. One side is the aggressor, the other the victim. Both sides claim to extend their hands in peace, yet they make no room for one another in their narratives. Neither side is willing to publicly acknowledge its contribution to and perpetuation of the conflict. Both sides reference their religious heritage to justify their historical narrative.
While narrative includes historically accurate information, it is internally focused, often contains half-truths, and when the other side is addressed, it is morally excluded and devalued. Narrative is not in itself negative; it provides identity and legitimacy to people, and helps bring large groups of people together. However, it is also selective and resistant to new information.
Because historical narrative is so important and fuels the conflict, people who work in reconciliation have made suggestions regarding what to do in light of a narrative’s shortcomings. Some scholars suggest trying to bridge conflicting narratives by focusing on social and interdisciplinary history as opposed to political and military history, thus forming a third, joint narrative which can serve as a basis for reconciliation. Others say that this impossible, and argue that we should accept that the narratives cannot be bridged and instead learn to critique our own narrative and learn its weaknesses. In our encounters, we encourage participants to learn each other’s narrative, and then bridge the narratives as much as possible by focusing on shared social and cultural history and challenging our own narrative.[2] Finally, it is imperative that we learn to accept and respect the other narrative, particularly when there are elements about which we disagree. We are not asking participants to agree on everything, but we are asking participants to understand each other, to listen to each other, and to have sympathy for each other.
In order for us, both Israelis and Palestinians, to make progress toward reconciliation, we need to learn to truly listen to each other’s needs and be willing to recognize our own shortcomings. The basic needs for mutual legitimization can be found in the speeches of both Netanyahu and Abbas. Words of peace can be found in both speeches, but words of good will quickly dissipate when they are not coupled with acts of good will. Instead of recognizing each other and respecting each other, they belittled and excluded each other. Instead of employing self-criticism, they criticized each other. We do not expect agreement or an easy fix, but as a result of experience, we do know that two opposing sides can come together with clashing opinions, learn to hear each other, respect each other, and make room for each other (even when disagreeing), and walk away committed to each other and to continued fellowship.
As believers we share a common faith and we are all called to repent of our sins and shortcomings and seek peace, but this does not preclude us from reading the Bible in light of our own historical narratives.  When we are suffering, we often identify with Biblical figures that suffered, or turn to specific psalms recounting suffering.  When we are successful, we often identify with the successes of certain Biblical figures, and repeat their words of joy.  We can also read the Bible as an ethnic group, taking certain passages and using them for various purposes.  We should apply Biblical passages to our own lives, but we have to be careful that we do not do this in isolation.  We have to be careful not to read the Bible selectively, overlooking passages that may be uncomfortable to us.  Above all, we are called to peace, love, and fellowship.  We work for this every day and we hope you will continue to walk alongside us as we pursue peace, encourage love of our neighbors, and journey toward reconciliation.
By Salim J. Munayer
Edited by A. Ben-Shmuel