Taking Turns

No matter how deeply Israel's leaders day look into the eyes of a Palestinian leader, all they see is a security threat, an existential threat and a loser.

The president of Brazil, who visited Israel this week, defines himself as a negotiator and not as an ideologue. "I was born into the politics of dialogue, I became president of this country through dialogue and I have conducted my entire presidency by means of dialogue," he told Haaretz. Speaking about the planned indirect talks with the Palestinians, he noted: "The importance of talks between third- and fourth-rank officials [does not hold] even 1 percent of the importance of tete-a-tete talks between leaders. Politics is mainly contact. People have to look at each other, sense each other. A leader has to look into the eyes of his interlocutor."

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has the support of 80 percent of the people in his country, which he has rehabilitated and improved amazingly during the seven years of his two terms in office. He apparently knows something about leadership.

Dialogue and negotiations are the opposite of war, victory and occupation, and looking into your partner's eyes means openness, willingness and basic trust. Regrettably, no leader in Israel today possesses any of these. We have no leader who will look Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the eye and see there an equal partner, a desire for peace, sincerity or integrity.

The reason is a basic concept in psychology called "inner reality." Anyone who has been in therapy knows how this works: With our human limitations, we have an inner picture of the world, the principles of which are determined very early in life, mainly by circumstances and the parents who raised us. Into these patterns, which are imprinted in us, we pour the element of reality. Prof. Dan Ariely, author of the book "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions," explains how the mind builds an expectation and then the expectation fulfills itself using our reality. That is, it's not that we believe what we see, we simply always see what we have believed from the outset.

Our leaders, who have been "taking turns" with one another for more than 15 years now, have a picture of the world in which the Arabs are fundamentally inferior and want to throw us into the sea; we are in an existential danger and the whole world is against us. Each has his own reasons. Two of them have spent most of their adult lives living by the sword, one was an old-school, labor-movement, security-minded Zionist, and two are scions of very right-wing families. One of them also has a father who believes that the Holocaust has not ended.

Thus, no matter how deeply Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres or former prime minister Ariel Sharon in his day look into the eyes of a Palestinian leader, all they see is a security threat, an existential threat and a loser.

It's not by chance that they take turns. They belong to the same exclusive club: very privileged white males from well-connected families. The ideological differences among them are a question of nuance. Only two have been different: opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who comes from the same background but as a woman is already in a somewhat different position, and Labor MK Amir Peretz.

Peretz is their diametric opposite: a Mizrahi - someone with family origins in the Muslim countries. He grew up in a transit camp, has been a labor leader and someone who lives in a town in the outskirts of the country. When he was appointed defense minister, they chose not to remember that he had been seriously wounded as a munitions captain in the paratroopers. Instead, they preferred to jeer at him for that photo of him looking into binoculars with the lens caps on.

But it's this picture, of a person for whom looking through binoculars is not taken for granted, that embodies a different option: a person who has not spent his life looking through crosshairs, who grew up among Arabs in Morocco and is not patronizing to them, who knows up close the position of impoverished inferiority.

It's precisely a person like this looking into the eyes of a Palestinian leader who can find a true common language. But Peretz's background also creates in the inner reality a glass ceiling that's very hard to break from inside, and God is our witness that no one was glad to break it for him from the outside.