Letter from America: Kerry’s reality-check time, questions that should be asked

We see other cultural differences when it comes to their starting points and expectations as they enter a room to negotiate.

US Secretary of State John Kerry. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The arduous nine-month talks that the Obama administration has sponsored between the Israelis and Palestinians, focusing on Jerusalem, security, borders and refugees, appear to have reached their terminus.
While Secretary of State John Kerry has declared that he is now in a “reality-check time,” it is clear that he has given special envoy Martin Indyk and his team the green light to try and extend talks beyond the quickly approaching April 29 deadline.
Even should the parties reach an agreement to extend the talks, the question needs to be asked: Have Kerry and his team, along with the Palestinians and Israelis, been looking for peace in all the wrong places? Are the very important aforementioned issues not the real core issues, but only surface issues? If they are not the core issues, then what are? Undoubtedly those issues need to be addressed, but the fact that they have been negotiated for over two decades since Oslo and we are nowhere closer to an agreement today should raise the question of whether attention needs to be turned to other areas.
One could say that both sides act as though they have been talking past each other. The truth is, that is exactly what has happened, and it goes to the heart of an important dynamic in the negotiations. In his book Beyond Culture, anthologist Edward Hall writes that cultures tend to fall into two categories of communication: high-context and low-context. In the former, ideas tend to be conveyed more through implication and inference, while in the latter, ideas are communicated with a higher emphasis on using explicit vocabulary and a greater regard for detail.
Palestinians tend to be a more high-context culture, while the United States and Israel are defined more as low-context cultures. In his book Dialogue of the Deaf, Raymond Cohen explores these differences between Israeli and Arab forms of communication. For example, there are a number of aspects to Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state, but one way to understand that demand is his low-context desire to have things spelled out more clearly, contrasted with the Palestinians’ high-context understated approach.
David Lehrer, the director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, carries this cultural difference one step further when he writes that Western “mediation is based on the principle that in a situation of conflict between two individuals or groups, the goal of the mediator is to move the parties from their stated positions to their actual interests. The sulha method of conflict resolution that is still practiced today in the Middle East is not at all about interests, at least not in a Western sense of the word. According to peace activist Elias Jabbour sulha is all about returning both the rights of the injured party and dignity to all parties in the conflict.”
We see other cultural differences when it comes to their starting points and expectations as they enter a room to negotiate. For Palestinians, Israelis’ inability to understand the injustice of the UN Partition Plan of 1947, and the lack of Israeli acknowledgment of its role in the Palestinian refugee story, are offensive. That partition plan gave the Zionists 56.47 percent of the land and the Palestinians 43.53%, at a time when the Jews represented 33% of the population and owned only 7% of the land, while the Palestinians constituted 67% of the population and owned 93% of the land. For Israelis, there is less concern with justice and honor and much more focus on security. They find the contradictory messages that Arabs show when it comes to understanding the desperation Jews felt after one-third of them were murdered in the Holocaust, and the related need for a secure Jewish state, unsettling, to say the least. In addition, there is the Arab nations’ non-acknowledgment of their role in Jews’ expulsion from their longtime homes in many Arab lands following the state’s establishment in 1948 – a situation that calls into question whether the Jews are really welcome in the Middle East.
These points go to the heart of this conflict, which are the emotional and visceral wounds both sides feel. The Vietnamese pacifist Tich Hnat Hanh would recommend that each side turn to the other and say, “I know that you suffer.
I have not understood enough of your difficulties and suffering. It’s not our intention to make you suffer more. It is the opposite. We don’t want you to suffer. But we don’t know what to do and we might do the wrong thing if you don’t help us to understand. So please tell us about your difficulties.
I’m eager to learn, to understand.”
If you can’t imagine Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas saying that, then you have a glimpse into why more than 20 years of talks and a lot of investment by different US administrations have gone nowhere. The stated “core issues” are important and necessary for reaching an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, but there are other vital cultural, psychological and emotional dynamics percolating below the surface that would be wise to finally address.
The writer is a rabbi and teaches conflict resolution at Bennington College.