To make Mideast peace, West must drop basic assumptions

International community must recognize we are all parties in the conflict, we all will have to suffer the consequences of doing nothing.

Protesters burn an Israeli flag 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Protesters burn an Israeli flag 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
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 out.
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 be resolved.
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 space.
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.
The issue 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.
The 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 peace.
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 often limited.
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.
Still, 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.
Israeli and 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.

The 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 Washington DC.