I asked an articulate Arab-Israeli why the Palestinians have rejected every compromise peace proposal since 1947. He repeated a firm mantra three times throughout our conversation: “All-or-nothing… all-or-nothing… all or nothing!” The historical events of the past 75 years suggest that this view on the Arab-Israeli street is not idiosyncratic, but a deeply rooted belief about conflict resolution.
Recent talks in Aqaba and ongoing violence have sparked resumed calls “pushing” for a two-state solution. The Western institutions urging this need to hear an inconvenient truth: The root of the Middle East problem is that the two parties hold fundamentally different ethical systems that make this impossible without a paradigm shift in conflict resolution strategies.
University of California professor, Vladimir Lefebvre, developed a “game theory” model to demonstrate that two distinct ethical systems characterize the value systems of Western and Eastern nations. The former Soviet Union exemplified the Eastern system, whereas the US and Europe represent the Western.
Although Israel is temperamentally Middle Eastern, its ethical system is Western, given that many of its founders had European roots. The Palestinians adopt the Eastern value system. During the breakup of the Soviet Union, this model was used at the highest government levels in the US and the Soviet Union to facilitate the transition.
The Western system values compromise over confrontation and believes that the end does not justify the means. The Eastern system values confrontation over compromise – the latter reflecting weakness – and believes that the end justifies the means. The geographic proximity of these opposing parties only magnifies the impasse that is as inevitable as fitting a square peg into a round hole.
Compromise vs. Confrontation
These differences between compromise versus confrontation and means versus ends are evident throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians believe their ends are noble. Therefore, this justifies targeting civilians in battle, using their people as human shields, celebrating the intentional murder of civilians, and financially rewarding terrorists who murder non-combatants.
The Israelis restrain their means to the end. They avoid targeting civilians, warn residents of an imminent attack despite potential costs, and do not celebrate the loss of human lives. The UN Partition Plan of 1947 required Israel to make huge compromises because of the indefensible borders. Israel accepted; the Palestinians rejected. Such has been the outcome of subsequent proposals, and so will it remain until the ethical system is addressed.
In the Eastern ethical system, compromise reflects weakness and humiliation. Until this ethical system is changed, the Arab mind is emotionally incapable of accepting a peace settlement that offers anything less than the proverbial Palestinian state from the river to the sea. Yasser Arafat’s stance during the Camp David conference in 2000 illustrates this.
A 2002 article in The Guardian noted that then-US president Bill Clinton, to avoid ambiguity, read aloud to Arafat a proposal approved by then-prime minister Ehud Barak. This compromise established a Palestinian state yielding 92% of the West Bank, 100% of Gaza, territorial compensation to the Palestinians for pre-1967 territory, dismantling most of the settlements, a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, and Palestinian sovereignty over half the Old City, with custodianship over the Temple Mount. Not all, but a lot.
DESPITE THE generous terms that met most of their demands, Arafat rejected the offer. An enraged Clinton banged on the table, saying: “You are leading your people and the region to a catastrophe.”
Barak commented on Arafat’s behavior: “He did not negotiate in good faith; indeed, he did not negotiate at all.” Barak concluded that Arafat lacked the “character or will” to make a historic compromise. Instead, Arafat secretly planned Israel’s destruction by stringing along Israeli and western leaders and naïve journalists. The lack of character that Barak observed derives from the ingrained ethical system.
Instead of forcing further cycles of futile negotiations, the United Nations, European Union, and the US need to invest in promoting a transformation that elevates compromise above confrontation. This analysis yields two implications: 1. The West must recognize the current impossibility of a solution and instead work toward deep culture change that must precede any future real negotiations. 2. Allow Israel to operate within the current political reality imposed by the divergent ethical systems, rather than tying their hands behind their backs.
Israelis are increasingly adapting to the reality that compromise is a pipe dream. To the Palestinians, it has always been a nightmare. The only feasible strategy when compromise fails is to meet confrontation with confrontation. The Western value is that compromise is preferred over confrontation, not that confrontation must be avoided if compromise fails.
Since the Palestinians view compromise as a weakness, they pursue only total victory or defeat. Growing Israeli awareness of this has led to increasing settlements, initial approval of the death penalty for terrorists, acceptance that the two-state option is currently moribund, and pursuit of Israeli sovereignty achieved through victory. Regrettably, this situation carries the danger of shifting Israel more generally away from valuing compromise, signs of which are manifest in its internal politics.
Another option is resurrecting the idea of compromise, but only when both parties endorse an ethical system that values this. A change in the value system might seem remote. But equally improbable were ideas that the Soviet Union would dissolve, that killing civilians would become a war crime, that Christians are among the strongest supporters of Israel, and, significantly, that non-Palestinian Arabs are embracing compromise through the Abraham Accords.
Ethical systems are stably imprinted at an early age. However, if one learns their ethical system is not working, necessity can lead to an alternative perspective. Arab and Israeli children playing football together, sharing summer experiences, and joint Arab-Israeli schools and cultural events can support this transformation, but not alone.
For adults imprinted with the Eastern system, awareness of necessity will come only within their own framework of understanding: Confrontation that results in grudging acceptance of defeat and eventually compromising with the victor.
Without this cultural shift, we can expect more misunderstanding and tragic loss of human lives. As Abba Eban famously quipped, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Much of the Arab world is compromising to create positive opportunities with Israel. As time passes, the Palestinian confrontational strategy of all-or-nothing leaves fewer satisfactory solutions. Without this paradigm shift, they may obtain nothing rather than all.
The writer, who holds a Ph.D., is a psychologist and former assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He has authored scientific articles on positive psychology, as well as political commentaries in several publications.