The Peace Process as Therapy for Israel, Palestinians

The current U.S. reading must be replaced with one that looks at a Middle East scarred by multi-layered traumas on both sides.

In recent weeks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has caused a stir with remarks that, to most observers, seems a restatement of the obvious: that the focus of the peace process should be the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, along with some land swaps. Since 1993, when the Oslo agreements were signed, it seemed clear how the solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict will look: a return to the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and, most likely, some form of international involvement in Jerusalem?s old city.

Why the stir? Because to Clinton and the rest of the Obama administration, this all seems like a matter of a few simple steps. American envoy George Mitchell has said as much repeatedly, asserting that a final agreement must - and can - be reached in two years. But the current approach is doomed to fail, because it is based on a flawed conception of the nature of the conflict and the type of process needed to arrive at a solution. The fundamental problem is that Obama?s administration (among others) believes that the two sides are essentially rational, acting in their own perceived best interest, and that to get the process unstuck the mediator must simply bridge the remaining differences.

When it comes to the Middle East, Washington doesn't seem to learn. Bill Clinton made the same assumption with the Camp David and Taba summits of 2000 and 2001, which he seemed to think could end the conflict quickly. The results have been disastrous: the failure of Camp David 2000 led to the onset of the second Intifada, and since then the bloodletting has never stopped, so far culminating in the horrors of Operation Cast Lead a year ago in Gaza.

This reading must be replaced with a one that looks at the Middle East scarred by multi-layered traumas are on both sides. The Palestinians have never been able to mourn what they call the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their home in the 1948 war of independence. Their ethos of national liberation was based on the idea that all refugees would be able to return to their homes in Jaffa, Ramle and Lod. Letting go of this dream, a precondition for the two-state solution, requires a process of mourning that has been made almost impossible by the ongoing humiliation of the occupation and the force of Israeli retaliation, culminating in Cast Lead.

Trauma is not the Palestinians' alone: Israel's Jews live under the fears of annihilation that overshadows any consideration of compromise. I know that many critics of Israel believe that such a statement is a cheap ploy to justify colonial ambitions; but right or wrong, this is the reality of the Israeli collective psyche. The attacks by Arab armies in 1948, 1967 and 1973 were experienced as moments when Israel could have been wiped out, and this fear is very much revived by the possibility of Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. On top of that, hope for peace was dealt heavy blows by the suicide bombings of the 1990s, during the heydays of the Oslo process, by the second Intifada after its breakdown, and the increase in rocket attacks from the Gaza strip after Israel's disengagement in 2005. Behind all this lurks the shadow of the Jewish memory of the partially successful attempt to exterminate European Jewry in the Holocaust.

To make things worse, the Middle East's cultural unconscious is structured by the history of monotheistic religions, of which Jerusalem is the epicenter. For millennia three religions competed with each other about possession of the one truth that obliterates all others. Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered innumerable times, always in the name of the eternal rightness of one religion. These forces are quite real, present today in Israel's ideological right as well as Hamas and Al-Qaida, which is gradually building a presence in the Gaza Strip.

These thoughts may easily lead to the conclusion that the situation is hopeless, that the Obama administration should not waste energy and prestige on an impossible undertaking. But the peace process stands a chance if it is conceptualized not as just a rational intervention but also as a therapeutic process, which will allow both sides to work through emotional aspects of their traumas, dreams and shattered hopes.

This conception has a number of practical implications. First: Instead of declaring an a priori timetable, the process needs to be defined as open-ended. As in Northern Ireland, the sponsoring parties, presumably the United States and the rest of the Quartet (United Nations, European Union and Russia), need to commit to maintaining a permanent peace conference that will convene until agreement is reached. And they need to find ways to engage all parties involved in the process, most of all the Arab League, but also Hamas and possibly, at some point, Iran.

Second: It must give room to emotions, which are likely to run high, in addition to negotiating practical issues. Accusations and counter-accusations will run from the latest breach of cease-fires by either side, to the massacres of Palestinians in Deir Yassin in 1948 and the Coastal Road massacre of Israelis in 1978. And at times both sides will return to religion-based claims for sovereignty over Jerusalem's Old City.

Such an open-ended process would allow Palestinians to constructively voice their rage and pain about what they have gone through and to express their need for Israel's recognition of its part in the Nakba of 1948. Over time, in the same way patients progress by talking about their traumas, a therapeutic process may lead to the Palestinians' gradually realizing that they have not just been passive victims; that they made decisions, ranging from rejection of the US partition plan in 1947 to the use of suicide bombers since the 1990s.

Likewise, Israel's Jews need to be able to voice their fear that Arabs will never accept Israel's existence, and that the two-state solution is just a step towards its destruction. Therapeutic diplomacy will help them gradually accept their part of the responsibility for the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Israel has refused to do so for most of its history because it feared that such admission would destroy the legitimacy of Israel's very existence.

In this way both parties can come to the point or realizing that accepting the other's narrative and point of view does not mean annihilation.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell knows this type of process very well, because he played a crucial role in the Northern Ireland talks. The question is whether the Obama administration is willing to take on this challenge for the long haul. If it isn't, we are in for another series of failed summits, shattered hopes and the inevitable bloodshed that follows.

This post first appeared in the New York Times, February 26, 2010.

Click here to return to Carlo Strenger's blog