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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Both Israelis, Palestinians only talk past each other

JERUSALEM — If there is one truism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is that each side has its own narrative, and is sticking to it.

The response to Tuesday morning’s horrific terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which four men were killed by gun and ax-wielding Palestinian terrorists is yet another depressing example of how both sides in the conflict talk right past each other and adhere to their talking points and their arguments with religious-like devotion.

As chance would have it, I woke up in Jerusalem on Tuesday and spent the morning in Ramallah, meeting with Palestinian officials and activists. With pictures of the blood-stained synagogue and slain Israelis looping constantly behind us on a muted television I was told by a prominent Palestinian official that the recent spate of Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem — including this one — was the result of provocation by Israeli leaders and reflects a deliberate effort to instigate further violence. For this official, the Israeli occupation is the root of, and explanation for, Palestinian violence.

On one level, this is obviously correct. On another level, it reflects a stunningly narrow view of the conflict. Palestinian rejectionism quite clearly pre-dates the occupation; and while 47 years of Israeli control of the West Bank has quite clearly and not surprisingly intensified Palestinian hatred, this is not a new development. And Hamas continues to reject Israel’s right to exist and embrace violence as a political tool.

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But more important it shows a frustrating refusal to acknowledge Palestinian responsibility for violence. Whatever one thinks of Israeli actions and the occupation — and personally I believe the latter is a cancer and tragedy for Israel and Palestinians alike — one has to engage in some fairly impressive rhetorical gymnastics to argue that Israeli actions are not, in part, a response to Palestinian provocation.

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But of course that argument can just as easily be flung at Israelis. Responding to Tuesday’s attack, Netanyahu declared, “This is the direct result of the incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen [Abbas], incitement that the international community irresponsibly ignores.”

To be sure, Abbas’s recent statement that Netanyahu was prompting “a detrimental religious war,” and his call to protect against Israeli efforts to change the status of the Temple Mount (a move Netanyahu has rejected) were profoundly unhelpful and PLAYS directly into the incitement charge.

But while there might be room for criticism of Abbas, Netanyahu is engaging in far greater obfuscation. It takes some real chutzpah to act as though practically unrestrained settlement expansion, the disproportionate killing of civilians during the Gaza War, the constantly and daily humiliations of occupation, the denial of political rights, and the rejection of a sovereign Palestinian state ever coming to fruition in the West Bank play no role in inciting terrorist attacks. The situation in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem is one of increasing hopelessness that the occupation will ever end. That anyone is surprised that the result is further bloodshed is delusional.

Moreover, the constant efforts of Israeli leaders to blame Abbas for every single bad thing done by Palestinians (right-wing minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday called him “one of the biggest terrorists to have arisen from the Palestinian people’’) ignores the fact that there has probably never been a Palestinian leader more committed to non-violence and the two-state solution than Abbas.

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In the end, one doesn’t have to accept the Palestinian narrative of the conflict to recognize that Israeli actions contribute to Palestinian violence; just as one doesn’t have to accept the Israeli narrative and recognize that Palestinian terrorism contributes directly to heavy-handed Israeli responses and the rejection of a workable two-state solution.

But for both sides such acknowledgment is simply a bridge too far. Decades upon decades of violence have led to a climate of mistrust and outright hatred. It has led both sides to become so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they are simply incapable of seeing the conflict – and the consequences of their own actions — through the eyes of the other.

If anything, Tuesday’s senseless tragedy is yet another piece of evidence that the need for an end to the occupation and a permanent solution to the conflict is more vital than ever. Instead, the attack — and the likely response from Israel — will simply serve as reinforcement, to both sides, of the rightness of their narrative.

Related:

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One of four men murdered in Israel has ties to Boston area

A man cried during the funeral of Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, one of four men killed in an attack by two Palestinians on Tuesday. Twersky had ties to the Boston area.
A man cried during the funeral of Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, one of four men killed in an attack by two Palestinians on Tuesday. Twersky had ties to the Boston area.Getty Images

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.