The Power of 'We're Sorry'

David Grossman, 2/8/2005

Israeli novelist David Grossman is the author of "Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). This article was translated by Haim Watzman.

Los Angeles Time
February 8, 2005

What would happen if the prime minister of Israel began his speech today at the Sharm el Sheik summit by acknowledging the Palestinian people's suffering? What if he were to declare that Israel accepts partial responsibility for that suffering? What effect would such simple and direct words have on the Palestinian public? How would Israel's position in the coming negotiations suffer, and what would Israel gain?

And how would Israelis feel if the leader of the Palestinian Authority were to begin his speech by expressing his regret for the suffering that the Israeli people have endured through years of conflict. What if he were to accept, simply and directly, that the Palestinians are responsible in part for that suffering?

Can such a moment be imagined, can such possibilities be conceived within the thicket of suspicion and hostility that traps us both?

It is clear to all that a final peace agreement between Israel and Palestine must address the suffering that the two peoples have caused each other, and their responsibility for that suffering. No one doubts that each side will bargain up to the last minute before consenting to grant official recognition of its enemy's suffering.

It is clear that such a step has a very concrete price. At Camp David, the Palestinians sought to submit "price tags" for each of the chapters in their national tragedy. Israel's representatives in those negotiations discovered that the Palestinians have computed reparation fees for every Jerusalem house and neighborhood from which Palestinians fled in 1948. The same is true for every village from which Palestinians were expelled and for every person who was killed by Israel during the course of the conflict.

But at the time of the final peace treaty, Israel will also be able to submit its bill for everything the Palestinians have done to Israelis from the beginning of the conflict to the present day. Israel will place a price tag on every violent Palestinian attack from the beginning of the 20th century to the bombardment of southern Israeli towns three weeks ago by rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. And don't forget the large amount of property that Jews left behind in the Arab countries they fled.

But perhaps the most difficult concession implicit in recognizing one's enemy's suffering and accepting responsibility for it is not economic.

What is really hard is for each side to give up its perception of itself as the real and sole victim of the conflict. Each side's view of itself as the victim gives it strength, motivation, a sense of the justice of its cause and internal cohesion. It links both Israelis and Palestinians to their historical identities. Both sides have, in different ways, conceived their history around a sense that they are inexorably fated to be victims.

It is precisely for this reason that a precedent-setting declaration of the type suggested at the beginning of this article would have a healing effect on the two peoples. A people prepared to give up their monopoly on being the injured party have freed themselves from the defeatism and paralysis inherent in the role of sole eternal victim. A nation that is able, after generations of refusal, to recognize its responsibility for the suffering it has caused its enemy (a responsibility it will, in any case, accept in the end) will quickly discover that its attitude to the entire conflict has become more sober and realistic. The other points of dispute will become a little less charged, less symbolic and "mythological." They will become much more human, and so much easier to resolve.

Such a mutual declaration might well directly penetrate the heart of the conflict. It could assuage one of its most sensitive and difficult points, one that has for years fueled hostility and the refusal to compromise.

In the end, most Palestinians and Israelis already know the outlines of the final agreement and recognize the limits of the concessions each side can make. But a mutual acceptance of the other side's suffering can give the peace process the emotional momentum it so desperately needs. It would be a truly grand gesture, human and generous.

Let us not forget that behind the haggling over freeing one more or one fewer prisoner, over one or two more kilometers to be returned, hides a large double wound the wound of the Palestinian insult and the wound of the Israeli insult. This is the insult of the suffering that has never been recognized; the insult of the life lost in a conflict that could have been resolved long ago had the two peoples been more daring and more generous with each other.