An intractable conflict with no solution?

The Obama administration is signaling after many serious attempts it, like previous administrations, will leave The Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the next president.

February 6, 2016 22:24
3 minute read.
DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST at Brandeis University.

DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST at Brandeis University against former US president Jimmy Carter’s book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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World War I lasted four years. World War II lasted six. The Cold War lasted 44. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lasted more than a century, beginning in the decades before WWI. The growing sentiment is that it is an intractable conflict with no solution. The Obama administration is signaling after many serious attempts it, like previous administrations, will leave it for the next president. However, the ongoing events on the ground, as well as the growing volatility of the region, do not allow for such a luxury. What is needed now is a solid reevaluation of how to approach this conflict.

That is to say, administration after administration has focused on what are called the core issues of the conflict: borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem. While core, it can be argued they are not the heart of the conflict. Rather, the heart of this conflict is about Israeli identity and Palestinian identity. For far too long the issue of identity has not been given the attention it requires in this unceasing conflict. The four aforementioned core issues have been regarded as ends in and of themselves when in fact they are all the means to fulfilling the identity desires and objectives of Palestinians and Israelis. The time has come for the starting point of negotiations to be that orientation. Those core issues will not go away with this perspective, but by reversing the equation new road maps will be given the chance to emerge.

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One of the greatest needs of human beings is to find meaning in life and to feel that our lives matter. Personal identity is also strongly connected to group identity as we search to incorporate our lives within social relationships and the family of humanity. Group identity allows us to see our lives in a larger con - text providing us with significance and purpose. Group identity grounds us. Saira Yamin of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies points out groups “represent safety, strength, harmony, and familiarity. They fulfill the needs for bonding, identity, cohesiveness, integrity, recognition, and security.” Seen in this light we can understand that a threat to identity can be as serious as a threat to personal safety. This is so true in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the insecurity both sides feel and experience.

For over a hundred years high jumpers approached the high jump bar with the front of their bodies. Then at 1968 Olympics Dick Fosbury transformed the high jump event with his “back- first” approach when he won the gold medal. The core components of high jumping – approach, speed, acceleration and clearance – remained, but by literally shifting his approach 180 degrees Fosbury discovered a new and more effective way to meet his challenge. Similarly, a new approach is essential when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Harvard Kennedy School’s Ronald Heifetz talks about the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges. We tend to focus more on the former which are easier to locate and not on the latter which can lay below the surface, such as values and beliefs, including identity. As Heifetz points out, when there is the shift to adaptive challenges the door is opened to innovation and new discoveries.

The growing day-to-day violence between Israelis and Palestinians when seen within the context of the regional unrest requires the United States not to take a sabbatical from its unique leadership and position of responsibility in the world. We recently entered a new year and the final year of the Obama administration. Conventional wisdom says expectations should be minimal at best. However the world does not operate by the four-year cycle of American presidential elections; the US cannot afford to hit the pause button every four years. If anything the last year of an administration affords it the freedom to try something new and audacious as the stalemated Palestinian-Israeli peace process demands.

The author teaches conflict resolution at Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action. He is director of Strategic Partnerships, Friends of Arava Institute for Environmental Studies

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