History, Historical Patterns, and Creating New Histories: Chomsky and Klug Revisited

History and interpretations of the past, as the frank and far-reaching exchange between Noam Chomsky and Tony Klug demonstrates so insightfully, play a major role in shaping the present and molding future trajectories. Their candid conversation underlines key 
areas of agreement and disagreement in understanding Palestinian-Israeli relations, especially since 1967. It is not the historical argument, however, that makes this discussion so important today (that is best left to historians); it is the dynamic patterns that their debate exposes—sometimes consciously and at times only implicitly—that transform their interchange into something so significant and timely. Herein, indeed, may lie an intriguing guide to a different and more equitable future

Defining the Desired Outcome

The first major issue raised by Chomsky and Klug—one which dominates their lengthy and broad correspondence—focuses on the desired outcome of a durable Palestinian-Israeli arrangement. Although they both concur that the prospect of two independent states living side by side in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River was their preferred option and that progress in this direction has stalled, they differ on the causes for this development. While Chomsky insists that for both security and historical reasons (with time more the latter than the former), no Israeli leader ever exhibited a commitment to a two-state outcome, Klug claims that the record is far more nuanced. They converge, tellingly, on one crucial point: that Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live together and therefore any arrangement must, at its core, justly and equitably reflect the political aspirations of both peoples.

It is this premise, the backbone of efforts to create two viable states at peace with each other, that has unraveled almost completely in recent years, in part as a result of the built-in mistakes inherent in the Oslo process and in part due to the deepening asymmetries that were institutionalized in the wake of subsequent events. Nevertheless, Klug and Chomsky still cling to a (somewhat modified) two-state design—unlike many of their contemporaries who are actively weighing binational and unitary alternatives. This growing debate about the form of Palestinian-Israeli futures—ranging from two-states, confederal, federal, and various types of unitary possibilities—has now taken over center stage.

This discussion diverts attention from the key lesson to be gleaned from recent efforts to bring an end to the conflict (embedded, if not always acknowledged) in the Chomsky-Klug exchange: that there is an intimate relationship between the way these initiatives were handled and their results. And, if indeed past processes have dictated present outcomes, it is their dynamics—rather than their favored architecture—that must be reviewed and, where necessary, revised.

Examining the Changing Context of Negotiations

This brings the discussion to the second pivot of the conversation between Klug and Chomsky: the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation efforts and their meaning. In their back-and-forth on this topic, they once again argue over the relative importance of key benchmarks, centering initially on 1967 (unlike other pundits who go back to 1948 and before), and then moving to 1973, 1982, 1991-1992, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2011, 2016 and beyond. Even though it is impossible to remain indifferent to Chomsky’s claim—and Klug’s skepticism—that 2000 was in fact a watershed in the attempt to realize the two-state scenario, surely that is not the main point that emerges from this particular debate. At issue is how the various parties perceived and came to terms with the changing connection between international trends, regional shifts, and local priorities.

The answers to this question are significant for two main reasons. First, they serve as a vivid reminder of the linkage between global, regional, and domestic elements at all critical crossroads in Palestinian-Israeli relations. Second, they offer a much-needed method to delve into both the constraints and opportunities inherent in the characteristics at each of these distinct (and constantly changing) turning points.

The conclusion to be drawn from these contextual patterns should not be buried in quibbles over their specific details; they must be accentuated explicitly. In the ebb and flow of Israeli-Palestinian connections in recent years, the particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic over the past century—and most recently from Madrid, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the Abraham Accords—have always been an integral part of the intersection of international, regional, and local dynamics at a particular time. No effort to extract the conflict from these surroundings succeeded in the past, nor can it be expected to gain much headway in the years to come. A workable accord on Israel and Palestine must have a strong regional component, an internationally backed process, and a detailed Palestinian-Israeli content.

Addressing the Substance of Deliberations

This insight leads logically to the third—and most underdeveloped— aspect of the Chomsky-Klug debate: the substance of an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. Here the interlocuters focus on the relative emphasis to be placed on security as opposed to identity—and hence on interests versus history—in their quest for the achievement of a viable settlement. Such a conversation has the advantage of bringing to the fore contending historical narratives (shaped by increasingly contentious perspectives of events dating back to 1948 and before), as well as their latter-day ramifications for the progressively asymmetrical Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

President Donald Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahan, September 15, 2020, in the White House.

But this increasingly binary framing runs the risk of hiding more than it reveals. It has in the past reduced the conflict to a competition either over land (although it is far from the type of real estate deal depicted by Trump) or over historical legacies (which, given their religious underpinnings, are hardly negotiable) while understating the centrality of power relations, their normative roots, and their institutional manifestations. These lie at the heart of the ongoing conflict, and their specification is central to any serious attempt to reconfigure the now toxic pattern of Palestinian-Israeli interaction.

Current efforts in this direction (mostly on the informal level) are focusing, justifiably, on spelling out the guiding principles of such an undertaking. Some discussions are exploring a value-based approach, which seeks to delineate a common normative foundation for all the residents of the land. These include not only equality, justice, and fairness, but also individual as well as communal freedom. Closely linked, albeit conceptually distinct, is a rights-based approach, which centers on guaranteeing equitable individual, civil and political rights for Israelis and Palestinians as the first step towards constructing a different and better future devoid of domination by either side.

These seemingly theoretical exercises, with their conscious emphasis on parity, redraw attention to the essential human roots and manifestations of the ongoing conflict. More significantly, unlike the realpolitik of past—and failed—negotiations, they highlight the need to restructure power relations in ways that protect, preserve, and promote human dignity. The critical move from the normative level to the redesign of power relations is still in its infancy. It requires much more detail, elaboration and institutional concretization. Yet by putting human relations at the forefront, it constitutes an important departure from previous patterns.

Strategy to Determining the Way Forward

This leads to a fourth issue, one which is prominently addressed by Chomsky and Klug and is fast gaining prominence in debates on Israeli- Palestinian matters: strategy. Much of this discussion and how to change realities on the ground (with particular emphasis on ending the occupation and its corollaries) revolves around the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). In what has become a major source of contention among activists and, increasingly, policymakers, the BDS movement demands Israeli accountability—challenging its policies and posing questions about their—and often Israel's—legitimacy. This debate has gathered momentum as conditions have deteriorated, morphing at times into heated disagreements about the distinction between criticism of Israeli moves, the Zionist enterprise, and antisemitism.

Noam Chomsky and Tony Klug, each in his own way, both cast serious doubts about the effectiveness of BDS as a game changer. They intimate that, at best, its impact is limited. At worst, it may actually constitute a diversion from the main objectives of ending the occupation and realizing self-determination for both peoples on the land. They therefore shift their sights to how to jumpstart a meaningful reorientation. Here they adopt a top-down approach: one which concentrates on the cultivation of a new generation of leaders unfettered by the perspectives and baggage of yesteryear. They do not, however, shed light on how the discredited leadership generation will be displaced or on who could constitute suitable and mobilizing replacements.

There is thus a major strategic disconnect between the bottom-up approach of BDS activists and their supporters and the top-down tactic of those concerned—like Klug and Chomsky—with jumpstarting more comprehensive (and official) initiatives. The former are more concerned with calling out Israeli impunity, the latter with unlocking a deadlocked diplomatic process. But if past efforts serve as any guide to future action, then there is a pressing need to link the informal initiatives of grassroots activists and independent thinkers with the more formal efforts of a new crop of leaders on both sides in order to move forward.

Identifying the Trigger for Change

Inevitably, therefore, the conversation therefore turns to a fifth topic: the trigger for change, given current conditions, for such a step. Chomsky and Klug broach this issue cautiously, while acknowledging that circumstances for constructive change may be limited. At times they circle back to the need to await the appearance of yet another auspicious turning point—as in the early 1990s—thereby perhaps downplaying the force of human agency. At times they build on the positive input of a new crop of leaders and opinion-shapers both inside and outside the area. In either case, they give short shrift to detailing the circumstances that have in the past and can once again force a publicly backed change in Israeli and Palestinian stances.

If historical insights are a guide in this as in other matters, then the answer may lie in the untenability—if not the profound destructiveness—of the continuously backsliding "status quo." For the last decade and more, as the hope for a peaceful outcome to the conflict have been replaced by a mixture of frustration, anger, and despair, Israeli and Palestinian societies have been imploding as their relationship has moved to the brink of an all-consuming explosion.

Palestinian existence under Israeli rule following the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza has become beyond intolerable, with the subsequent territorial and human fragmentation accelerated by Israel’s efforts to manage the conflict giving way in recent years to a renewed attempt to control the details of Palestinian lives and the lands on which they reside. A rhythm of rudderless discontent has set in, highlighting polarization and allowing extremist groups to dictate events and to further undermine the well-being of large segments of the population.

On the Israeli side, too, policy disagreements have assumed socioeconomic trappings, fostering a paralyzing admixture of social separation and growing alienation leading to growing political instability. This polarization, accompanied by the rise of neo-authoritarian and populist propensities, continues to tear the country asunder—leaving the landscape prey to militant groups that further undermine any consensual notion of the public good.

These pressures are reaching a boiling point. In order to stem the prospects of a deterioration into sheer and utter anarchy, decisionmakers may find themselves in a position in which they may be compelled to engage with each other rather than to stand by as their ability to maneuver dissipates entirely. No trigger can be more effective in overcoming mutual suspicion, reluctance, and even enmity than that.

Traveling the Difficult Road Toward Reconciliation

This brings the conversation full circle, to the sixth and final challenge: achieving an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Chomsky, Klug, and the growing number of people dedicated to breaking the strangulating cycle of this conflict all share a desire to lay down the political, social, economic, and psychological building blocks for an acceptable arrangement in the future. In order to do so, they must undergo the exceedingly painful process of shedding—as Klug and Chomsky so cogently point out—many of the myths that have informed their relations and actions in the past. They will also have to go one step farther: They will need to acknowledge their respective roles in shaping the narratives—and consequent mindsets—of their counterparts so as to enable the slow and difficult road toward reconciliation.

This cannot be accomplished solely by looking ahead. It requires a long, hard, and critical confrontation with history and with the historical patterns that past actions unleashed. History can serve as a guide for future relations once past mistakes are acknowledged, alternatives narratives recognized, and different directions mutually adopted. Noam Chomsky and Tony Klug have embarked on this fascinating journey. The pursuit of its historical insights as well as both the obvious and latent patterns that their analysis uncovers may go a long way to achieving what many sadly deem impossible: a lasting, just, and equitable Israeli-Palestinian peace.