What Europeans do not understand about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says
Amos Oz, is that it is not a mere misunderstanding that can be fixed if only the
parties would sit down and drink coffee together. To the contrary, he says: the
conflict is very real; there is a perfect understanding between two parties who
both claim the exact same land for exactly the same reasons. Rivers of coffee
drunk together, writes Oz, cannot extinguish the tragedy of two people who
rightly claim the same homeland.
Rather than a psychologist, then, the
parties need a real practical solution to help them figure out how to share the
same piece of land. Once such a solution is found, outsiders need to support the
parties as they make the painful sacrifices required to carry it
Oz’s arguments highlight one of the many erroneous assumptions often
held by Western foreign policy makers and diplomats who deal with the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three have particular impact on the success
of the peace process.
First is the assumption that underlying most
conflicts are conflicting interests, rather than conflicting claims or stakes.
According to that view, if the true interests of both sides can be elucidated
and explained, a “win-win” solution can be found and the conflict should easily
This logic does not work for Israelis and Palestinians
because the conflict is deeply tied to territoriality with a very specific
twist: both parties claim the same land exclusively, and that land is tied to
their national and religious identity. In this respect, their interests are
identical and negatively defined based on the exclusion of the “other” from that
While the redrawing of borders between warring parties is not
difficult in and of itself, it is the value of the territory within those
borders that adds to the intractability. Once a disputed territory becomes
imbued with ethno-religious attachments, it can no longer be divided through a
simple measuring exercise on a map.
Thus, while parts of the two-state
solution may need to be realized in order for Palestinians to accept a future
peace deal, the ability or usefulness of a future agreement to surgically divide
the territory as well as its sovereignty must be reconsidered.
is analogous to a divorcing couple that not only must agree on child custody
issues, but also must decide who gets to use which room in the very tiny
apartment in which they both live, since nobody is moving out. Thus, even if a
successful division of the territory were possible, neither side will ever be
satisfied and outside support will be required. Because any territorial
compromise will create resentment within both communities, we are looking at
something that to current generations looks more like a “lose-lose” agreement,
albeit with a promise of a better future for their grandchildren.
second assumption is that the conflict is primarily related to identity and that
identity is malleable and fluid, amenable to manipulation in order for the
parties to collectively re-interpret the past and re-envision their
future. This may be true for most Western cultures, but reality looks
different for more traditional societies engaged in intractable
conflict. While ethnicity is certainly not hardwired in our DNA, identity
that has become territorial and suffered a history of conflict and hardship in
defense of a territory is more difficult to forget or disregard. Once the first
martyr of the land is buried in the soil, land acquires sacred value and cannot
easily be given up.
Hence, while efforts by outside mediators to get
Israelis and Palestinians to drink coffee together in order to realize their
similarities are indeed honorable, they are misguided. The feeling among
both Palestinians and Israelis is that they are indeed brothers, and that once
an agreement is made, cooperation will be much easier than that between Israel
and other Arab states in the region.
Israelis naturally feel
uncomfortable that among the Palestinian population – both inside the West Bank
and among the outside refugees – many believe that a two-state solution is merely
a stepping stone for the full return to historic Palestine. As long as that is
the case, some Israelis explain, Palestinians are not ready for
Before making such a judgment, however, Israelis need to take a
step back and also re-examine themselves. Who among Israelis, even the
non-religious ones, would not consider biblical Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus as
part of the Jewish ancient homeland? Does the existence of such sentiments among
Israeli Jews mean that Israel is not ready for peace?
Rather, the realization
that dual and historic claims will persist and that the ownership question may
never be satisfactorily resolved is something that future generations will have
to learn to live with and respect. What needs to be “resolved” however, are the
messianic dreams among certain groups on both sides that the historic homeland
needs to be redeemed.
The third and final assumption is that the role of
religion is bad for the purposes of conflict resolution and that it should (and
indeed could) be discouraged and marginalized. While most westerners
understand that religion plays a large role in Middle East politics, their
understanding of that role, including its destructiveness and potential, is
Most would agree that religion is a source of both
conflict and peace, but few are willing to engage with religious concepts and
doctrines in order to facilitate peacemaking. What is important to
remember here is that in the Middle East, not only are people on both sides
regularly killed because of their religious beliefs, their religion is also
inseparable from their identity, which is also closely defined by
territory. Thus, even if religion is disregarded, it does not mean that
ethno-religious claims to territory will go away any time soon.
however, extremists should not be appeased, and radical national-religious
doctrines need to be properly dealt with. Religious leaders are paramount in
order to engage religious extremists so as to moderate them and help them
re-interpret religious “truths” in the face of geopolitical constraints. Such a
reinterpretation is seen even among Israeli religious Jews, where it is no
longer common to talk of Transjordan and southern Lebanon as part of the
historic Promised Land.
Instead, the focus is on the much more narrowly
defined Biblical notion of the Kingdom of Israel. A close look at this shift
shows that religious leaders have been indispensable for authorizing this
reinterpretation of the ethno-religious narrative.
Palestinian leaders will never make the choice of territorial compromise out of
a sudden burst of compassion or understanding for the other side. Rather, as
self-interested statesmen, they will make a choice for compromise when they deem
it absolutely necessary.
Hillary Clinton has stated that “we cannot want
peace more than the parties themselves,” but her view is short-sighted. Instead,
the international community must recognize that we are all parties to this
conflict and that we all will have to suffer the consequences of doing
nothing. Only by understanding the need to let go of these erroneous
assumptions can Europeans and Americans be truly helpful in their efforts to
move Israelis and Palestinians further along the path to peace.
writer is a postdoctoral fellow at the European Union Institute for Security
Studies in Paris. She has a PhD in international relations and conflict
management from the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies in