How Israeli Politicians Took Peace With the Palestinians Off the Table

Beyond the violence and disputes, Israeli leaders' adherence to conflict-supporting narratives creates psychological barriers that are very difficult to remove.

Daniel Bar-Tal
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Hope against Hope
Hope against HopeCredit: Reuters
Daniel Bar-Tal

A key question that preoccupies conflict researchers, politicians and activists in international organizations, and indeed anyone affected by protracted and violent conflicts, is why in so many cases they are not peacefully resolved, despite the steep price being paid by the societies involved in the blood-drenched disputes. A case in point is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, considered a prototypical example of an intractable dispute that has persistently rebuffed numberless efforts to resolve it peacefully. It continues to exist because of the goals that each side perceives as existential; its violence; both sides consider it irresolvable; it consumes a tremendous investment of resources from the participant parties; and it occupies intensely the societies involved, which view it as central in their lives.

Why, then, despite the many victims, the destruction, the vast financial outlays required to sustain the conflict, and in particular the tension, the psychological costs, the suffering and the resulting inferior quality of life – not least the severe damage to the democratic system – have the two sides not been able to arrive at an agreed-upon solution? And this stalemate persists even though the conflict has lost some of its intensity and a general blueprint for its resolution was presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton in December 2000, expanded during the Taba talks in January 2001, appeared as part of the Geneva Initiative in 2003 and was incorporated into the Arab League’s 2002 initiative.

The answer that will be provided here to this vexing question, which is one of many possibilities, is based on sociopolitical psychology. This approach necessitates an understanding of some general principles relating to intractable conflicts:

1. In order to cope with the major challenges posed by a conflict, societies develop a functional supporting narratives that comes to outline and to strengthen the justness of the society's goals, and negate the goals of the rival group; single out the most imminent threats and suggest conditions that will ensure society’s security; make a differentiation between the adversary – which is perceived as possessing traits of inferiority and cruelty – and the group to which they belong; glorify own group by attributing to it a host of positive traits, notably morality and humanity, and viewing it as the only victim of the conflict.

2. These narratives satisfy the basic needs of the society’s members at a personal and collective level by helping to create a clear and meaningful picture of the conflict, satisfying the need to feel secure andforging a positive collective image and identity.

3. Frequently, at the height of the conflict, the narratives become hegemonic and are perceived by the majority of the society and its leaders as the unadulterated truth. In time, these ideological narratives become the pillars of the culture of conflict that evolves with time.

4. The narratives serve as a prism for perceiving the conflict’s reality and for processing new information. They create a specific angle of vision, characterized by a one-sided, simplistic, biased or even distorted worldview that generates a meaningful and unequivocal perception of the conflict.

5. The ruling establishment makes efforts to preserve the narratives’ hegemonic status. To that end, attempts are made to prevent the presentation of contradictory information coming from individuals, groups, NGOs and also media sources.

6. In the absence of light at the end of the tunnel, signaling a possible peaceful resolution of the conflict, the narratives function as a means of coping with the challenges created by the conflict’s harsh conditions. However, when a possibility arises to resolve the dispute, the same narratives act as a barrier that makes it very difficult to enter into negotiations and end them successfully.

A Palestinian is checked by Israeli soldiers patrolling the streets of the West Bank city of Hebron on December 15, 2015. Credit: AFP

Liberation, not occupation

In the Israeli case, from the moment of the state’s establishment in 1948 until the early 1970s, the conflict-supporting narratives were hegemonic and pervasive in all the institutions and channels of communication, whether formal or informal, expressed in leaders' speeches, literature, textbooks, news and commentary in the press and on the radio, and in films and plays, as well as held by the society members. A series of events – among them the 1977 visit to Jerusalem by the Egyptian president, the Lebanon War in 1982 and the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians in 1993 – spawned contradictory narratives. These emphasized the need for compromise, adduced a realistic possibility for a peace process, and legitimized and humanized the Palestinians. Narratives of this sort are a sine qua non for serious negotiations and for the success of a peace process.

However, this era began to wane with the assassination in 1995 of Yitzhak Rabin and the rise to power of Benjamin Netanyahu. The failure of the 2000 Camp David conference and the outbreak of the second intifada later that year heralded a new period: a re-escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that continues to this day, with all efforts to conclude it by means of a peaceful resolution having failed.

The way events since 2000 have been presented by Israel’s leadership and the majority of the media have intensified the backing for narratives that support the conflict’s culture, which once again assumed a dominant status among much of the public. Additionally, those in the leadership and among the public who support these narratives are waging a bitter struggle against contradictory and alternative information, and against the individuals and groups that disseminate them.

Almost all the Jews in Israel view the state’s establishment in 1948 as the homeland of the Jewish nation as a sacrosanct goal that was achieved. At present, though, a large part of the dispute with the Palestinians revolves around the territories conquered in 1967. Many Israeli Jews see the military takeover of the West Bank in the 1967 war as the continuation of the process of liberating the homeland; 72 percent do not recognize the situation as an occupation (according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index, June 2016).

In light of the erasure of the Green Line from maps printed in Israel, including those used in schools, and in the wake of the Jewish settlement project in the West Bank over the years, much of the public began to see those territories as a liberated part of the homeland. According to a study conducted last year by University of Haifa sociologist Prof. Sami Smooha, a significant portion of Jews in Israel (62 percent) think that “the Palestinians are Arabs who settled in the Land of Israel, which belongs to the Jewish people.” The same percentage thinks that “the Palestinians have no national rights to the country, because they are not its original inhabitants.”

In the 2015 Knesset election, the platforms of almost all the Jewish parties, including Zionist Union (whose major component is Labor), referred to the historic right of the Jews to the Land of Israel, the land of the Bible. This also embodies the spirit in which all the parties’ leaders express themselves. According to this point of departure, for Israel to withdraw from the territories conquered in 1967 would be to concede a region that was liberated at a bloody cost. Withdrawal would also entail a vast human and economic price, in terms of moving the settlers into Israel proper.

Another bone of contention that looms as a substantive issue at the heart of the conflict is the issue of the status of Jerusalem. No solution is feasible without partitioning the city, because for the Palestinians the decision to make Jerusalem their capital is a sacred goal. However, the great majority of Jews in Israel are convinced that the city must remain united as the capital of the Jewish state and that it is a cornerstone of Jewish existence. Jerusalem’s importance and the notion of its indivisibility were underscored in the 2015 election even in the platforms of parties that are considered to be moderate.

For example, according to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and its unity is a cardinal national symbol. Jerusalem is not only a place or a city, it is also the center of the Jewish-Israeli ethos and the holy place to which Jews looked for all the generations.” Zionist Union’s platform declares as a goal “strengthening Jerusalem and its status as the eternal capital of the State of Israel, and guaranteeing religious freedom and access to the holy places of all the religions, while preserving Israeli sovereignty.”

At the most general level, the country’s Jews believe that defense and guaranteeing a secure existence are Israel’s major challenges and that the Jewish population lives under constant existential threat. They believe that the intention of the Arabs, including the Palestinians, is to destroy Israel and annihilate its Jews (according to the responses of 67 percent of the Israeli Jews in a 2012 survey conducted by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies).

In a 2015 survey by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 43 percent of respondents said the Palestinians’ long-term ambition is to conquer the country and eradicate its Jewish population. They believe that the danger of another Holocaust has not passed, that only the oppressor has changed. They perceive Israel as an island of sanity – as “a villa in the jungle,” as Ehud Barak once described it – surrounded by hostile states, ethnic groups and organizations. The grim situation that has developed in the region in recent years is seen as clear proof that they are right.

Public opinion surveys consistently show that the majority of the Israeli Jewish public agrees with statements such as, “All means are justified in Israel’s fight against Palestinian terrorism” (about 70 percent, according to a University of Haifa survey). Or, “Every military action that Israel initiates is justified” (about 55 percent). In addition, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, during the Israel Defense Forces Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip two years ago, 48 percent of the Jewish population thought the use of force was proper and an additional 45 percent thought that greater force was called for. Similarly, most of the Jewish political leaders in Israel typically justify the use of violent means against the Palestinians.

An Israeli strike in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.Credit: AFP

Taking the moral high ground

Notwithstanding the changes in Israeli Jews’ perceived image of Arabs and Palestinians, the basic traits attributed to them – untrustworthiness and a violent temperament – still constitute a significant obstacle to a peace process. Because of the use of the Palestinians to perform suicidal terror acts and murdering Jewish civilian population in through terrorism Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, are seen as stereotypically insensitive to human life. Many Israeli Jews believe that the Palestinians have no intention of reaching an agreement with Israel, noting that they have missed many opportunities and rejected good offers that were made to them. The belief that the Palestinians are not partners for a peace process has taken deep root in the Jewish consciousness since first being articulated by Ehud Barak.

These approaches are reflected clearly and consistently in Israeli public opinion polls. A large proportion of the country’s Jews (about 77 percent) believes that “the Palestinians have proved themselves to be unreliable,” and 60 percent think Palestinian morality is “lower than the standards of other human societies” (as per a survey conducted in 2014 by the Herzliya-based Interdisciplinary Center). Of particular interest is the fact that the delegitimization of Arabs, and of Palestinians in particular, is acceptable even among some Israeli Jews who term themselves left-wing. As a result, and for other reasons too, some 70 percent of the public in question think there is no possibility of a peaceful solution with the Palestinians.

Similar views are expressed in speeches by Israeli politicians. They stress Palestinian hatred for Israel and what they see as the way Palestinians cheapen of the value of human life. For example, Netanyahu commented in 2014 that, “A deep and wide moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death while we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty while we sanctify compassion.”

In 2015, Moshe Kahlon, now Israel’s finance minister, stated: “We have no partner today. Do you want to give this country to Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], who is inciting against us in the Palestinian Authority and internationally? There is no one to talk to on the other side. This whole subject of negotiations is superfluous statements and talks that lead nowhere.”

In contrast to their perception of the Palestinians, Israeli Jews view themselves as cultured, modern and moral. Public opinion surveys show that the Jewish-Israeli public believes that in general Jews are smarter than other peoples and espouse loftier moral values (77 percent and 57 percent, respectively, in the IDC survey of 2014).

In their speeches, the leaders frequently emphasize the country’s democratic and religiously tolerant character, contrasting this with other Mideast peoples. “In a region in which women are stoned, homosexuals are stoned and Christians are persecuted, Israel stands as a beacon,” Netanyahu said in 2011. Militarily, virtually all of Israel’s leaders consider the IDF to be the world’s most moral army.

Israeli Jews see themselves as the only victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prof. Smooha’s 2015 survey found that about 72 percent of Jews think the Palestinians are chiefly to blame for the protracted conflict, and 55 percent of them do not believe that the Palestinians underwent what they term the Nakba, or catastrophe, in 1947-49, during which 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. Public opinion polls conducted during Operation Pillar of Defense, in Gaza in 2012, showed that 80 percent of Jewish Israelis considered themselves victims of Palestinian aggression and saw the military operation as a response to that.

The adherence to conflict-supporting narratives and the renewed hegemonic status accorded them is one of the major barriers to resuming the negotiations for ending the conflict, and contributes to Israeli Jews’ readiness to go on living by the sword. The members of that society – who live under a persistent experience of being exposed to violence and threats that are defined as constant and grave by Israel’s leaders, and with the collective memory of the Holocaust, which is invoked and highlighted time and again – receive validation for the conflict-supporting narratives. Moreover, the state’s official institutions, and also a large number of civil organizations, inculcate the themes of the conflict-supporting narrative and cement them in the consciousness of Israel’s Jews. The schools systematically convey this narrative. News broadcasts of most media outlets transmit messages in accordance with these narratives, and during crises mobilize in support of the government and the army.

This socialization process begins at a very early age. Preschools, particularly in ceremonies marking the Jewish and Israeli holidays and memorial occasions, transmit messages based on conflict-supporting narratives in various ways. The result is the shaping from childhood of a worldview in which the themes of these narratives begin to be internalized.

Praising the victim

There is no doubt that the processes described above characterize Palestinian society as well. The reason for the analytical focus here on Israel’s Jewish population is that it is in possession of almost all the concrete assets that, from its point of view, would have to be given up for the sake of a peace agreement, and also has incalculably greater military and economic power than the other side in this asymmetrical conflict.

Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton survey Jerusalem from at the King David Hotel in 1994.Credit: GPO

In the present situation, breaking the cycle of terror is a very difficult challenge, as a change in the conflict-supporting narratives also demands a cessation of the physical and verbal violence by both sides or at least its significant reduction. As long as the worldview of leaders consists of conflict-supporting narratives and they continue to adhere to the original goals of the conflict, it will be extremely difficult for them to take meaningful measures aimed at a peace process. Instead, they delegitimize the potential negotiating partner, play up every possible threat and ascribe to their society (the Jewish community) the role of the victim even as they heap praise on it.

A change in the narratives can occur only when a visionary leadership initiates and spearheads a peace process (a top-down process), as was the case in France with the war in Algeria, or under the pressure of civil society (a bottom-up process), as partially occurred in Northern Ireland. However, in the case of matching conflict-supporting narratives on the part of the leadership and of majority within a society, as is the case in Israel, it is impossible to move ahead to a peace process, which requires a breakthrough policy – necessitating public support – as we saw in the Oslo accord period during Yitzhak Rabin’s tenure as prime minister.

Changes take place when leaders change their approach (this can be a rapid process, as in the case of Charles de Gaulle’s attitude toward the conclusion of the French-Algerian conflict), or when the public becomes persuaded of the need for peace and pressures its leaders to embark on a negotiating process (generally a longer, though possible, proposition as was the case in Northern Ireland). Of course, a peace process can begin and conclude under third-party or international pressure in various ways (as in the case of El Salvador).

In any event, a leader who is determined to put an end to a conflict must begin to recast the conflict-supporting narratives and prepare his or her society for the anticipated difficulties in the transition period, during which violence still exists and the negotiations are in an embryonic stage. This is a period of duality, in which signs of the conflict and signs of peace are present simultaneously. The leader must be ready to do battle against oppositional groups of spoiler, which will usually resort to every available means, including violence, to sabotage the peace process.

Only complete faith in the way of peace, which in essence is characterized by uncertainty and risk-taking, together with a determined resolution to advance on this path with all the necessary strategies and tactics, will bring about the coveted goal. Leaders and peoples must strive for peace with the same intensity with which they brought about and initiated a conflict. Because a conflict’s genesis lies in the human mind, peacemaking, too, must be spawned in the minds of people as an sought-after goal whose attainment is important for the wellbeing of the society in which they live.

These ideas are not foreign to Jewish society. They have already been created and have coalesced in Israel in the past. Prime Minister Rabin expressed them on May 4, 1994, in his remarks at the signing the Cairo Agreement, just a year and a half before his assassination in 1995:

“We are confident that both peoples can live on the same piece of land, each under his own vine and fig tree, as our prophets foretold, and grant this land – a land of stones, a land of gravestones – the taste of milk and honey which it so deserves.

“I appeal now to the Palestinian people and say: Our Palestinian neighbors, one hundred years of bloodshed implanted in us hostility toward one another. For one hundred years we lay in wait for you, and you lay in wait for us. We killed you, and you killed us Today, you and we stretch out our hands in peace. Today, we are beginning a different reckoning.

“The new hope which we take with us from here is boundless. There is no limit to our goodwill, to our desire to see a historic conciliation between two peoples who have until now lived by the sword in the alleyways of Khan Yunis and the streets of Ramat Gan, in the houses of Gaza and the plazas of Hadera, in Rafah and Afula.

“A new reality is being born today. One hundred years of Palestinian-Israeli conflict and millions of people who want to live are watching us.”

Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, a political psychologist at Tel Aviv University, is the author of “Intractable Conflicts: Socio-Psychological Foundations and Dynamics” (Cambridge University Press).

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