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Dazed and confused?

08 August 2014

Gerald Butt considers a civilised debate on the Middle East

Debating Palestine and Israel
Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Mary Grey
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FEW long-running international disputes can have produced as much heated disagreement as the one between Israel and the Palestinians. Furthermore, it has largely been a dialogue of the deaf: few Israelis and Palestinians have ever exchanged views person to person.

For the most part, debate has consisted of long-distance tirades from both sides, fuelled by hatred, suspicion, and prejudice. So it is a pleasure to find here a rare instance of calm and rational discussion of the subject.

Debating Palestine and Israel takes the form of an exchange of letters between Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, an ardent supporter of Israel, and the Christian theologian Professor Mary Grey, an ardent supporter of the Palestinians.

The letters are collected in 20 chapters, each focusing loosely on an historical era or event, starting with the anti-Semitism of the 19th century before passing throughthe 20th - the Balfour Declara-tion, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel, the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and much more - and continuing to the present day.

Simply as a record of the birth and growth of the Israel-Palestine dispute, with many quotations from scholarship on both sides of the fence, together with a timeline and maps, this is an informative and interesting book. But the real value comes from following the authors' thoughtful exploration of all the contentious issues that have contributed to keeping this wretched dispute unresolved.

As the two correspondents move forward through the decades, frustration creeps into their prose, as each recognises the difficulty of convincing the other of a point of view. "Sometimes I think you have not read my answer to you!" Grey complains. "You write of the Arab States as 'wanting to wipe Israel off the map'; of the PLO wanting to liquidate Israel - ignoring my attempt to highlight the humanitarian and social side of the argument."

Cohn-Sherbok retorts: "I read your last exchanges with care. You stress the humanitarian activities of the PLO. I do not dispute that the PLO had these social concerns. But the PLO's main objective was to wipe Israel off the map."

Despite their sharp differences, the two authors emphasise throughout the book their common desire to seek ways of reconciling the differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

As the exchange of letters progresses, one senses that, while they are honestly and conscientiously examining the many controversial questions, they will end up agreeing to disagree on most. In her final letter, Grey says that she is "very aware of areas we have not discussed in sufficient depth as well as the way I have failed to convince you of many points".

Cohn-Sherbok concludes that their joint wrestling over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict mayhave "left our readers dazed and confused. This is inevitable, I believe, since the Palestinian and the Israeli narratives are utterly different."

There, in a nutshell, lies the whole problem. Debating Palestine and Israel is an essential handbook for future Middle East mediators, and for all who want to know why trying to find a common narrative has led even our most skilled diplomats and statesmen to walk away from the challenge, feeling, well, dazed and confused.

Gerald Butt is the Middle East Correspondent of the Church Times.

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