Before I start the section on speaker analysis, a few housekeeping notes are in order. First, we were on an extremely tight schedule during the Israel Diplomatic Fellowship 2009 trip. This arose from a combination of over-scheduling, difficulty counting off (how hard is it to pay attention and count to 49? Seriously?), and socializing. The first two were outside of my control while the last was certainly within my control. Regardless, everyone on the trip was horrendously sleep deprived. Thus, I was a bit more irritable than normal so some of my observations may be phrased in harsher terms than I would normally use. Now that I am slowly catching up on sleep, I'll try to couch things in, ahem, diplomatic language when possible.
More importantly, we did not speak about historical narratives. I probably repeated this a million times during the trip but the point bears repeating. The Israelis and Palestinians have entirely different historical narratives and thus disagree about the meanings and implications of events even when they agree on the temporal order and existence of those events. All of our speakers, with a couple exceptions, spoke with the truthfulness of the Israeli historical narrative as a given. This wasn't surprising but it was disappointing. Any program ostensibly aimed at improving "diplomatic" relationships between Arabs and Israelis needs to represent both sides fairly.
Since we lacked any significant alternative to the Israeli narrative, we squandered countless opportunities to discuss difficult issues in a constructive manner. For example, speakers routinely portrayed the 1948 War, or in Israeli nomenclature, the Independence War, as a war of self-defense against Arab aggression following the failure of the Palestinians to ratify the 1947 UN Partition Plan. However, before Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon invaded, both Jews and Palestinians engaged in what would now be considered ethnic cleansing, with the Israelis finding more success due to their superior training and armament. It is possible to view the invasion as Arab intervention to protect the Palestinian population and prevent the Jews from forcing a rejected agreement upon the Palestinians.
Both sides have their merit and an objective observer can readily identify the flaws in each side's logic. However, it is impossible to address the core claim of the Palestinian national movement without recognizing the historical basis for their rejection of Israel's legitimacy. In their eyes, Israel's seizure of territory in 1947-48 was illegal since the UN plan was not ratified by both parties. In Israel's eyes, the UN's passage of the partition plan gave them the legal right to form a state. The recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel by the international community, albeit with a few notable exceptions, further bolsters this claim. It is fairly obvious that these historical narratives are fundamentally at odds with one another. Viewing later events through one lens or the other leads one to different positions, with each being entirely reasonable given the assumptions with which one is working.
Many members of the Fellowship stated that they felt like they are better able to advocate on Israel's behalf. But without understanding the Palestinian historical narrative, to whom can they advocate other than to those who already accept Israel's version of history? Aren't we supposed to do more than preach to the choir?