Is Israeli-Palestinian peace a dream for the naive? - opinion

Many Israelis are convinced that Palestinians are incapable of abandoning their principle of denying Israel's right to exist.

 OFFICIALS ATTEND the Madrid+15 Conference in January 2007, one of the events that have taken place over the years to renew peace efforts between Arab states and Israel and commemorate the Madrid Peace Conference.  (photo credit: SUSANA VERA/REUTERS)
OFFICIALS ATTEND the Madrid+15 Conference in January 2007, one of the events that have taken place over the years to renew peace efforts between Arab states and Israel and commemorate the Madrid Peace Conference.
(photo credit: SUSANA VERA/REUTERS)

The Israeli peace camp is in deep crisis. It is perceived as afflicted by political naiveté and has failed to win over Israeli hearts and minds for its vision of reconciliation with the Palestinians. Indeed, many Israelis today are convinced that the Palestinians are simply incapable of abandoning a fundamental principle at the heart of their ideology: the denial of Israel’s right to exist.

To begin with, there is no symmetry between the persuasive power the “Hawk” camp holds compared to the “Doves.” Nobel Laureate Prof. Daniel Kahneman has shown that when it comes to relating to the “other,” Hawks have a clear advantage. Deep in our minds lie biases that usually play in favor of the Hawks who see conflict as the main characteristic of the relationship with the other.

In the Foreign Ministry’s cadet course I took part in 40 years ago, the question “Is there a chance for a change in a Palestinian ideology that demands the elimination of Israel?” was already asked, discussed and ultimately answered. The senior Israeli diplomats lecturing before us did not equivocate – “there is no such chance. The very existence of Israel is in conflict with the core of Palestinian ideology. The PLO is an organization that stands for the liberation of Palestine, not part of Palestine. The essence of an ideology is not something that changes.”

We were then introduced to the brochures we would be distributing around the world when we finished our training. In one of them, which had a menacing image of a leopard on its cover, a question was posed: “Can a leopard change its spots?” The leopard was the PLO, and its ideology was described as “axiomatic and intolerant of any compromise.” To avoid any hint of ambiguity, the brochure stated categorically: “This leopard is no different from any other leopard: it cannot change its spots.”

This sweeping assertion, in my view, stood in contradiction with historical cases that had clearly exhibited deep ideological change. The freshest among them at the time was the signing of a peace agreement with Egypt in the wake of president Anwar Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem.

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin at the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979 (credit: GPO)Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin at the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979 (credit: GPO)

In light of the despairing arguments I heard at the Foreign Ministry, I sought to acquaint myself with other approaches. I attended a class taught by the late Hebrew University Prof. Martin Seliger, which dealt with the dynamics of ideological change. Seliger’s studies show that the “ideological structure” has two layers: the “fundamental” and the “operative.” The set of hardcore principles meant to guide day-to-day conduct constitutes the “fundamental ideology.” Yet, everyday reality is fraught with constraints that sometimes necessitate a violation of the precepts derived from these core principles. Like any human being, leaders are prone to cognitive dissonance. First, they will try to deny the existence of any contradiction, prefer procrastination and act evasively. But once they have taken a decision, they will justify it using a different set of arguments that belong to the realm of “operative ideology” – emphasizing norms of efficiency, caution, and utilitarianism.

The tension between the two ideological layers – operative vs fundamental – is an engine for ideological change. The evolving reality challenges the principles at the heart of the ideological structure. When the tension is prolonged, the process of change unfolds slowly. The initial imprint is on the operative layer, and only later manifests as change at the ideology’s core.

Substantial ideological shifts that have taken place over the years in the Arab world have developed according to a similar pattern. They occurred after a slow process that seeped from the outer ideological edges into the core. Suffice it to mention the Arab Peace Initiative (2002) which represented an ideological U-turn from the “Three No’s” of Khartoum (1967), as did the letter sent by Arafat to Rabin (September 9, 1993) in which he stated, in stark contrast to the Palestinian National Covenant, that the PLO “recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”

Giving official expression to change at the ideological core is a significant milestone, but it is not enough. The decision of one who is empowered to alter the language of ideological principles does not necessarily express the sentiments of the body politic or polity. Many continue to indulge in past dreams, and some may struggle, sometimes violently, to restore the validity of the original ideas.

The political implications that derive from Prof. Seliger’s pattern of ideological change make the work of the peace seekers all the more difficult. A wide range of policies must be pursued that will continue to “bombard” the outer operative layer so, over time, it will gradually undermine the prevailing deeply hostile sentiments, not only among the leadership but also deep in the hearts of ordinary Palestinians.

Indeed, few Israeli leaders have dared to speak honestly about what is going on in the hearts of our enemies. In his eulogy to Roi Rotberg in 1956, Moshe Dayan said: “Why should we complain of their hatred for us? For eight years they have languished in the refugee camps of Gaza and have seen with their own eyes how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forbearers once dwelled.”

Ehud Barak’s blunt remarks 42 years later resonate with Dayan’s poetic lines: “If I were a Palestinian and at the right age, I might have joined a terrorist organization.” Later he explained: “What else could I say? That if I were a young Palestinian immersed from birth in the Palestinian ethos, I’d become a third-grade teacher?”

The “Iron Wall” that Ze’ev Jabotinsky expounded was an indispensable element in a strategy aimed at changing the operative reality so that it ends up trickling down into the ideological core. In such a strategy aimed at reconciliation with an enemy, the operative message, “Israel is strong and cannot be subdued,” is a necessary condition, but not in itself a sufficient one. A variety of economic, social and political moves must also be made to generate a long-lasting Palestinian interest in maintaining cooperation and eschewing violence. These moves include laying out a credible political road map leading to a permanent agreement, ongoing economic development, improving the quality of public services and many other anchors that can help convince the Palestinians that the path of peace pays off and it is better not to deviate from it.

The Palestine Liberation Organization will not change its name. Its emblem will continue to depict Palestinian sovereignty over the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Some Israeli right-wingers will continue to hum Jabotinsky’s “Two Banks to the Jordan.” Nevertheless, life will slowly proceed to another place, and in the distant future, if we continue this difficult journey, the ideological core will change.

The necessity of walking this difficult path to peace does not only arise from a theoretical moral notion; it is the only possible way to prevent a slide into a binational reality that would eradicate Israel’s Jewish character. Our sages, who recognized the power of the challenge, taught us: “Who is the hero of the heroes? – The one who makes his hater his lover.” The greater the challenge, the more it calls for a leadership equipped with the vision, courage and tenacity to stick to the task and instill hope among the Israeli public, even in the hours that evoke despair. The lack of such exceptional leadership is not only the current political tragedy of the peace camp, it is also the existential tragedy of Israel.

The writer is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and author of ‘Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East.’