The latest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which began this week in Washington, leaves even the most loquacious Middle East experts without much to say. No bold offers have emerged from either side, and President Obama has yet to show the blend of grit, gregariousness and ingenuity that made Bill Clinton an effective mediator. All we can expect with certainty are more bouts of brinksmanship.
The problem is even tougher than most pessimists realize. It goes far beyond Israel's refusal to suspend settlement construction in the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority's struggle to curb Hamas, the terrorist group that shot four Jewish settlers to death this week in an attempt to derail the talks. One major reason Israelis and Palestinians may fail to reach an understanding is that they see the contested land they share in radically different ways.
For many Israelis — not only settlers — the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is the Promised Land, the same swath of earth unto which God hurried Abraham, the same rugged hills where their biblical forefathers pitched their tents after being delivered from Egypt, the same familiar landscape the first Zionist pioneers a century ago reclaimed as their own.
In "Altneuland," the 1902 utopian novel by Zionism's founding father, Theodor Herzl, a character explains why young Jewish settlers, inexperienced farmers all, will succeed while generations of Arab peasants failed to make the desert bloom: "The sacred soil … was unproductive for others, but for us it was a good soil. Because we fertilized it with our love."
The young Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe who pursued Herzl's vision and settled in what was then Palestine arrived more committed to reclaiming their ancient homeland than enamored of the particular contours of the land itself.
For the Palestinians, nothing could have been more preposterous. To them, this was the Mother Land, whose valleys were occupied by the gravesites of their ancestors and whose fields their families had tilled since time immemorial. They interpreted the newcomers' spiritual zeal as a source of inauthentic emotions toward the land itself.
Mahmoud Darwish, the most celebrated of Palestinian poets, frequently addressed this subject. In one of his most renowned poems, written shortly after Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Darwish boldly appropriated the voice of an Israeli soldier. Unlike the heroic warriors who occupied so much of the Hebrew poetry of Israel's first two decades, Darwish's Israeli soldier dreamed not of triumphs and conquests but of ordinary things, like a bird or a lemon blossom. More important, he was not attached to the land. "I don't know it," he says, "& I don't feel it as skin & heartbeat."
Face to face with each other this week, the men who represent Israel and the Palestinian Authority carry with them more than a trace of this radical difference in perspective. In Israel, even the fiercest secularists can trace their attachment to their homeland to the holy covenant between God and his chosen people, an ancient promise fulfilled anew by the Jewish state's Zionist founders. Israeli children are required to study the Bible throughout high school, where the good book — recast as a lesson in history and geography — underscores modern-day Israel's bonds to its storied and sacred past. And though Muslim Palestinians revere Jerusalem for its holy sites, the majority of Palestinians do not scour the West Bank's hillsides, ravines, wadis and groves in search of ancient ruins or transcendental meaning; for them, the land is earthly, not sacred.
These divergent perceptions, needless to say, make an already convoluted situation even more complicated; Israelis and Palestinians have enough hurdles in the here and now to overcome without worrying about the weight of heavenly rewards. But if talks are ever to succeed, both sides must concede, and overcome, their built-in biases. Israelis must recognize how deeply they are beholden to the idea of divine election, and take it seriously as a call to become what they believe God has designated them to be — "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation," a people who pursue more than mere real estate. The Palestinians must learn to disentangle the complex knot of fury, bafflement and disbelief that has bound them for a century. They must realize too that their Jewish neighbors' messianic verve does not discredit their right to a homeland or render their passion for it negligible.
Religious language may jar outsiders accustomed to apparently rational, self-interested disputes over tangible differences. Theological quarrels, when pursued recklessly, produce savage war. But it is foolish to try to pretend away a history of deep, fierce and contending passions. The road to a workable peace must pass through the ancient texts — but generously, with each side acknowledging what the other side sees. Only then will both sides truly have something to talk about.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. Liel Leibovitz is an editor at Tablet Magazine. They are the the authors of "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election."