Israel Doesn't Have Peace Because Peace and Fear Don't Mix Well

Israel simply cannot bring itself to use the bargaining chips it holds in exchange for the big prize. Why can’t it deliver the goods?

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Raida Adon's 'Woman Without a Home' (2013) video art.
Raida Adon's 'Woman Without a Home' (2013) video art.
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

What really lies behind the fact that there is no peace here yet? What are the origins of the pervasive brutality which permeates the state’s policies and our political life? Is our downtrodden past at the root of the prevalent violence? And, if so, how does one break this pathological cycle?

Many people have a childish tendency to always blame someone else. As in: “They took it from me! It wasn’t me, it was him!” In contentious political relations between two parties, it’s always easier to blame one’s adversary. However, one can’t always put the entire onus on others. A dispute requires two sides, and we’re one side of the equation.

Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to a situation in which Palestinian shortcomings become our main rationale for the absence of peace. In any case, where such a patently “guilty” party exists – against whom it is so easy to incite the majority of Israelis – there is no real demand that we undertake an accounting of our own share of responsibility for the situation. It’s so convenient to declare complacently that “there is no partner for negotiations,” ignoring the truth that it is we who are no longer partners for negotiations over most issues – particularly when it comes to assuming responsibility for the situation. Why is this the case?

The tactics are obvious. Ever since 1967, Israel has strived to hold on to as many bargaining chips as possible. Over the years, we have become enamored with these chips and find it difficult to let go of them. Thus, we do everything possible to delay the anticipated negotiation process. When it does arrive, as happens periodically every few years, Israel simply can’t bring itself to make use of the cards it holds and put them on the table in exchange for the big prize: peace. Again, the question is: Why can’t it deliver the goods? What lurks in the depths of the Israeli player’s soul, whether he is affiliated to Labor or Likud, which prevents him from relinquishing the occupied territories? What lies behind this dread of peace, reconciliation and integration?

Fears, both real and imaginary, fervent religious beliefs, flourishing nationalism, national greed and enjoyment of power over others – these are but an “envelope.” They conceal two deep-rooted frames of mind that underlie our inability to achieve peace and reconciliation with our neighbors, preventing us from civil and cultural integration into the Middle East.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend millennia-old Jewish culture and worldviews without considering the interaction Jews experienced historically regarding the nations and cultures within which they existed. We “exported” values and concepts while “importing” others’ views and customs. The richness of Jewish thought, indeed of our whole civilization, is one that is based on dialogue with others who differ from us. Such a dialogue implicitly includes openness and attentiveness. Implicitly, but not in actuality. Jewish dialogue was always characterized by built-in suspicion, by contrariness and separateness as both a modus vivendi and a modus operandi. The rule was that one talks with others but remains restrained.

Expressions such as “it is an established fact that Esau hates Jacob,” “We are a people unto ourselves, taking no account of the gentiles” or “The whole world is against us” serve as raw materials that drive the Jewish people. The element of distrust of other nations is woven into the fabric of the way Jews operate. This stems not only from persecution and hatred, ghettos and bloodshed: It is also an internal and active choice expressed through our normative system of halakha (traditional Jewish law), which ensured this mode of thinking.

For many generations it forbade us to eat at the tables of gentiles (kashrut laws), to work according to their same schedules (Shabbat laws), or to engage in sexual relations with them (laws of purity and bans on mixed marriage). To the same extent that the gentiles rejected us, we wished to maintain our separateness.

The establishment of the State of Israel did not alter this psychological frame of mind. As a collective we are still captives of our conception of the world as a hostile place, even though this is no longer the case. We still seek isolation due to our perennial suspicion, which also takes the form of a survival strategy. Even in our sovereign and independent country, we – as if still living in a shtetl of some bygone age, surrounded by a protective wall called Israel – preserve and foster a pathological view of Jewish-gentile relations. At present, all this trapped energy is directed at our Middle Eastern surroundings.

It’s not only the Arabs we can’t talk to: It’s also the United States, Europe or anyone else. We are a self-absorbed people who live within ourselves. The State of Israel is continuing to employ the strategy of alienation that was always practiced by the Jewish people. We cast all our cumulative historic accounting onto our Palestinian adversaries. They fulfill the present needs; in the past we had Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus, Khmelnytsky and Hitler. Now it’s the Palestinians’ turn.

Even though Palestinian shoulders are too small to carry the entire burden of history’s Jew-haters, we refuse to remove it from their backs. We need an absolutely evil external foe in order to define ourselves. We have good strategic responses and enough proven cumulative experience to know how to survive in a hostile world. We still don’t know if we as contemporary Jews can survive without an external enemy. Until we have a definitive answer, we will not release the Palestinians from their role as the enemy that defines us.

Within this mental state, not yet mature enough to reconcile and make peace with the world in general and the Arab world in particular, the issue of violence rears its head. There are potentially multiple modes of interaction available to us between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – modes that do not include power struggles or a disgraceful occupation based on systemic violence (built-in discrimination, selective investment in infrastructure, cantonization and curfews), as well as civic violence (associated with settlement construction, price-tag reprisal operations), and which are so aggressive.

Why, then, do we repeatedly find ourselves embracing the most brutal alternatives, sanctifying them above all others? The explanation must again turn to the realm of psychology. Undoubtedly our past is replete with instances of violence directed at us. Our memories tend to underscore the bad, with a meager effort invested in fostering the memories and heritage of past fruitful coexistence between Jews and their non-Jewish environment.

A feeling of victimhood – as if our lengthy national childhood was one characterized by abuse – has turned us into a country that behaves like an abusive parent. This is how it works in 
nature, where violence is perpetuated from one generation to the next. The parents were fearful and beaten, so the children become thugs, yet remain fearful and lacking in self-confidence.

Where are the keys needed to break this impasse? One of them is the passage of time. Maybe there is no such thing as “Peace Now.” Maybe our temporal proximity to the trauma of the ovens does not allow us to act with cold logic, only with hot passion. Maybe we need to wait for the next generation, already born, to accomplish what two generations – ourselves and our parents – totally failed at doing.

The other key is unfair, placing responsibility for Israel’s wellbeing on the Palestinians, for their own good as well. I liken Israel to a lazy elephant, sprawled across the road. It has no motivation to budge. It enjoys seeing itself as big and powerful, heavy, reclining and satiated.

It’s not surprising that in politics it is the weak and hungry that are agents of change. In contrast to a strong agent that has no motivation to move, the weak Palestinian can effect change. How? Violence has not wrought change, since we have become inured, even addicted to it. Each blow only adds to the historical fate to which we believe we have been subjected to over time – to justifying the present situation on the backdrop of our traumatic past.

Only one thing will raise the elephant from its current pose: a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience, a creative and determined insurrection aimed at one goal – attaining equal rights. It seems as if there has been a recent awakening among Palestinians in this direction. This is reflected in a transition from a discourse about interests, power, terror and honor to a conversation about values, rights and liberties. Many Palestinians are rightfully angry at Israel, holding it accountable for many wrongs, but they are no longer afraid of it or feel threatened by making peace with it. They have internalized the positive aspects of a political settlement, and, in terms of their political mental framework, they are well ahead of many Israelis. More and more Palestinians are acting in the political arena without fear and with an ideology of nonviolent resistance. Israel has no response to such a course of action, neither a military, political nor moral one.

In contrast, Israelis are still an anxious collective. Since peace and fears don’t mix well together, we still don’t have peace. The dread inside us has taken on a life of its own, to which we’ve become accustomed and even addicted. Fears can play a positive role, keeping us alert in the face of dangers and threats, leading us to deal with them in an appropriate manner. For too many Israelis, any kind of peace is enmeshed in an existential dread, a condition that supposedly conceals a plot to eradicate us, posing risks but no opportunities.

There will only be peace here when the masses and their political leaders internalize the fact that peace is a therapy for our fears. It is the total, completely beneficial alternative to all our historical phobias – a condition that can replace or erase them. Paradoxically, the Palestinians – who now bear the brunt of our current historic phase of fears and phobias – can save Israel from itself. A million Palestinians who relate to Israel and its corrupting occupation with peace and conciliation, rather than with terror and hostility, will do well for themselves and us.

Only this will make us finally relinquish our imaginary bargaining chips before the complete moral collapse of the whole Zionist house of cards.

Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and head of the Jewish Agency, is a writer, volunteer and social activist.

The articles that appear in this section have also been published in Hebrew and Arabic

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