The rival Israeli and Palestinian narratives obviously help sustain their conflict. Equally obviously, the differences between the narratives make any progress towards constructing a shared account very difficult.

This makes it tempting to look for a pragmatic way of making peace that sidesteps the disagreements on the history. The premise is that people are unlikely to agree on who was promised the land by God, or which date was the one when the true owners were in occupation. People are also unlikely to agree on who had right on their side in 1948 or 1967. The suggestion is that we should push the past aside and concentrate on the best settlement for the future of all parties.

On this pragmatic view, it will be hard to follow ideas of compensatory justice. How could we agree on who were victims and who were perpetrators? The future-oriented strategy can be presented either as a moral one or as a self-interested one.

The moral version presents it as still a version of justice, but stripped of reference to the past. What counts as the best outcome is decided by giving equal weight to each group (or, alternatively, to each person). The resulting agreement has a claim to acceptance partly because it is based on some version of justice as equal treatment. The alternative version appeals to group self-interest: “The other side may have no moral claim on us at all, but it is in our interest to escape from this conflict and this is the best deal we are likely to get”.

On either version, this strategy has the appeal of suggesting that peace may be possible even if the rival narratives persist. The pragmatism has been taken up by some who have done most to think about an achievable peace. Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh made an attempt in their joint book No Trumpets, No Drums. (REFERENCE.)

Mark Heller is explicit about his motive being group self-interest: “If the rightness of Israel’s claim is not absolute, it is at least better than that of its contestants… my own readiness to make territorial concessions in order to permit a Palestinian state stems not from a sense of moral obligation –from the conviction that it is the right thing to do- but rather from… an understanding that it is the wise and prudent thing to do.”

And Sari Nusseibeh is explicit that his aim is the best available compromise: “While Palestinians will not and cannot regard the principle of their sovereignty to be open to question, it is only natural that they accept the need to negotiate over the degree to which they can exercise this sovereignty. In this they would not be different from many other countries and nations which “willingly” learn to live with certain restrictions in their military or economic activities, not because this is the best of all possible worlds, but because this is the best possible use of this one.”

If progress on a shared understanding of the past is really impossible, this future-oriented pragmatism will have to be accepted as the default way to peace. But there is a strong case for trying to go beyond it. People on both sides have real grievances. People driven out of their homes into exile, people whose children have been killed by suicide bombers or by aerial bombing, or people who have been tortured, may refuse the idea that the past can be put aside. Grievances not addressed may fester.