Ziad Asali
Carnegie Mellon University
October 18, 2004 - 12:00am

This is my first visit to Pittsburgh and it is quite a pleasure to be here. In the mid-seventies my son, barely four years at the time, became a big fan of the Steelers and Bradshaw, so I became one too. I watched more football games with him than I would by temperament, past the glory days of his beloved Steelers, to shift my loyalty, after my son’s, to our home team, the Chicago Bears, through their short lived glory in 1985, but we stuck with them. We still support a struggling team.

We are here today however, to talk about a rivalry other than sports, one that is deadly and destructive with no time-outs. It has no rules and its purpose is not just to score a win, but also to vanquish, with no need for future fights.

For both Israelis and Palestinians, with few notable exceptions, knowing the history of the other is just another weapon in the struggle, and as such, it is to be avoided. Understanding that history might humanize the other, and thus might diminish the capacity of the young to kill and die for a noble cause, against an inhuman and evil enemy. However, this understanding is a tall order. There is too much to know, and the problem with history, as I said on another occasion, is that it has been around too long. It lends itself to support and to refute any argument, thus adding an aura of authenticity and validity to it.

The Palestinian history, which has come to be called their narrative, is that of a people who have lived in the land as residue of its inhabitants since time immemorial. Their coveted land was taken over by the Crusaders a thousand years ago and retrieved in two centuries. Jewish immigrants, supported by powerful and advanced Western powers, took over the land, and ultimately inflicted on them the Nakba, catastrophe, in 1948 by establishing the state of Israel on their land. A tale of dispossession, disinheritance, exile, struggle, tenacity, sacrifice, endurance, occupation, resistance, patriotism, betrayal, hopelessness, violence, humiliation and steadfastness, all woven together to define the Palestinian psyche. It is a story of individual success and of communal failure to redress the injustice of the past. At its core is a yearning of the people to have a state of their own, to be able to return from exile.

The Jewish narrative starts out with dispossession and exile thousands of years ago. A story of a people scattered among inhospitable neighbors in foreign lands and surviving by their sheer will to prevail against all powers aligned to assimilate and integrate them out of their own uniqueness. A story of Diaspora, Pogroms, Ghettos, Holocaust and Return that lead to unending wars and a conflict that defies resolution. A story of abject defeats, and heroic victories; of belligerence and dominance: of individual and communal success after the longest journey of humiliation and weakness. At its core, it is a story of survival, and the will to survive on the land.

These apparently irreconcilable narratives have caused these two peoples, and many others, unspeakable grief. It is the task of the survivors to reconcile these narratives, to achieve that which eluded generations before us, and to bequeath to our children a legacy of peace.

This is the story of the past. Let us move on to more familiar grounds. The present. A state of war exists in Palestine / Israel. People, mostly young people, with a fair representation of children and old people thrown in as collateral damage, are being murdered. The Palestinians live under occupation, with their elemental freedoms restricted, parceled out or denied. No one is safe and none is spared indignity in their encounters with the only Israelis they really see, and those are members of the army. The Palestinian economy is in shambles with the scary statistic that two thirds of the people in Gaza live on less than two dollars a day, and with two thirds of the Palestinian economy coming from outside subsidy. Lawlessness, emerging warlords, and outright thuggery remove any sense of safety and security that all people seek for their families. Criminality, confusing legitimate resistance with terror against the innocent has sullied the Palestinian name. Rampant corruption, from an authority that is cynical and fragmented, adds to the frustration of a public that is rudderless and dare not hope. They have been sustained, despite the two ills of occupation and corrupt Authority, by a cohesive culture that is centuries old, which is fraying at the edges. Their story too is one of survival and sheer existential defiance. They do not want to be broken and forever lose their chance of having their own state.

The Israelis, on the other hand, live in fear. Fear of suicide bombing, stealth attacks and threats of retribution by future attacks extending as far away as Iran. Their economic engine has stalled with tourism dwindling, the high tech boom turning into bust; the threats of sanctions with economic teeth are gathering momentum, especially in Europe and now the United States. The political system, reflecting the state of the country, is fragmented along ethnic, racial and ideological fault lines. The discipline and sense of mission to be a beacon to the world, proclaimed by the founders of the state has given way to emerging parochial interests pursuing their narrow gains. The quest to maintain the country as democratic and Jewish is threatened by the demography of occupation. To add to this picture, consider the defensive attitude of the Israelis to the world that has become more overtly critical of the occupation and its reflections on TV. The suffering of ordinary Palestinians chafing under occupation can only be accepted to the Jewish people of Israel and elsewhere if their own sense of fear blinds them to it. Their fear is not just for their own personal security, but for the possible loss of the whole enterprise. It resonates with a people victimized by history of millennia of oppression and is easily and readily evoked. What also sustains the Israeli public is their own sense of defiance. They will not be weak, or appear to be weak, ever again, and they will be protected by their own might, and that alone.

All in all, a grim picture of two peoples, conditioned to endure, with no sense of security, and with the conviction that your enemies’ gain is your loss. A zero sum game.

Having dispensed with the past, and drawn a grim picture of the present, let me turn your attention and mine to the future.

Let us start with the acceptance of reality as it is with these two people intertwined in a deadly embrace, stuck with the fact that none will eliminate the physical presence from the land.

The Israelis have a choice; either to make a deal with the Palestinians, a weak party eager to be free of occupation and to compromise, or try to frustrate them, hold on to the occupied territories, deny the emergence of a Palestinian State and wait out the present conflict in hopes for a better future. That future, statistically speaking, will entail the empowerment of the Arab and Muslim world, and with that, the continued call of the masses to liberate Jerusalem. The rising tide of militant Islamic radicalism is likely to be defeated in time by a culture that will not yield to the coercion and strictures of this militancy; however, the Muslim people’s sense of their own grievances, their need to develop and be empowered, will unavoidably lead to stronger states and societies. The rallying cry for them will be to liberate Jerusalem, if, in their eyes, Jerusalem were not free. Failing to bring this conflict to a close will pit Israel and its supporters, against the Muslims, radical or moderate, for the balance of the century. In other words, a prescription for a century of war and conflict. 0ne point two billion people are hard to beat.

Let us then assume that wise minds will prevail and will accept the fundamental need for a compromise for peace in the near future. The contours of the historic compromise are known to all. It is a variation on the Theme of Taba, worked out with the assistance of President Clinton in the waning days of his presidency. A state of Palestine along side Israel, with the borders of 1967 adjusted with mutual agreement. Arab Jerusalem serving as capital of Palestine, part of a shared and undivided city, holy places under each parties control. The state of Palestine will be a home of all Palestinians and the refugee’s rights, including compensation and relocation, will be preserved. This package will be sealed by a Marshall Plan that should make the whole project viable and assure the end of the conflict, and pave the way to create a New Middle East.

How do we get from here to there? The parties themselves are incapable of negotiating a formula for peace. It is left to us, the United States, with our immense assets across the spectrum, to bring this project to fruition because no one else can, not even in theory. This does not mean that others are irrelevant or have no role to play, but that we are the only that can do it.

For this to happen, a significant segment of the Palestinian and Israeli societies, and Palestinian and American Jews, have to link up, explore ways to express the will of the majority and turn it into political forces that will help the Administration play its indispensable role.

The American people need to be more aware of our national interest to resolve this conflict. President Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan who is a stalwart and courageous ally in this fight, said in an interview with Peter Jennings on September 2004: no single factor is more useful in our fight against global terrorism than resolving the Palestine problem. Now Pakistan is five countries, and two thousand miles away from Palestine, but Musharraf understands the incendiary nature of this issue and the need for its resolution. Prime Minister Blair made it his number one foreign policy commitment for the future.

The American people need to appreciate the significance of removing this issue from the table in truly normalizing economic relations with the fifty-five Muslim countries, thus opening up markets for our goods and products, and creating stable societies that pursue prosperity rather than war.

And lastly, nothing counts more than integrity and moral clarity. Establishing a democratic, constitutional state of Palestine, where it is actually feasible and desired, will be consistent with our own sense of our values that we wish for others to share. A prosperous and peaceful Palestine would be our contribution to the possibilities of freedom and stability that can open to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Resolving the Palestinian Israeli conflict will not put an end to terrorism, but it will pave the way for its defeat. It is necessary but insufficient, and that ought to be enough of an incentive for us to act.

At the end of the day, it takes people like us, like-minded in our pursuit of a real peace, people who transcend their tribal, ethnic, religious and national fault lines, to lock hands as we face those who are driven by the suffering of the forefathers than guided by the future of their children. Let us deny those who use religion for war and strife their wish to impose their dark visions on the rest of us.

There are no clean hands in this conflict, no monopoly on victimization, but there is a crying need for wisdom and compromise. Therein lays the hope for peace.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017