Middle East: Peace Delayed for One Generation - At Least

Non-refereed Journal Article

Rosoux, Valérie (2002) Middle East: Peace Delayed for One Generation - At Least , Security Dialogue 33(2): .

The spiral of violence and retaliation that is currently unfolding in the Middle East conjures up two sorts of reactions among observers: shocked and silent resignation or overreaction and moralization. Whatever the reaction, it is essential for the world to step back, analyse the situation and formulate conclusions about how to avoid events of this nature and magnitude. The aim is not to condemn those who are caught in situations of fear and who react as we probably would ourselves in similar circumstances. It is rather to understand how communities in conflict themselves create the distance that makes negotiation increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

War Versus Negotiation

Alon Pinkas, General Consulate of Israel in New York, recently asserted that the objective of the latest military operations carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces in the Palestinian territories was 'to damage as much as possible the terrorist infrastructure before resuming the negotiation process'.[1] In other words, the purpose was to wage war today in order to negotiate from a better position tomorrow. This argument rests on a perception of negotiation as something very different from a process leading to long-lasting peaceful outcomes. It depicts negotiation as a continuation of war by other means. However, it is illusory to believe that war may in any fashion favour a negotiation process.

To analyse this further, let us revisit three basic principles in international negotiation. First, any integrative negotiation requires the acknowledgement of an interdependence between the parties. Rather than seeking the elimination of the other, successful negotiation requires the recognition of the other's existence. Negotiation entails a dynamic of progressive rapprochement, which in turn entails that all parties must be convinced that each of them holds one part of the solution that is to be found together. The Israeli government has clearly set this approach aside. By waging the so-called war on terror, Ariel Sharon seems to be convinced that there is one single correct solution to the conflict, that he holds this solution and that this solution has to be imposed upon the other party by force, whatever the cost.

A second principle underlying any integrative negotiation is that of allowing the change from a zero-sum game to a win–win situation. In this process, parties are engaged in a common task of transforming a situation in which one side can gain only at the expense of the other into one in which it is possible for all parties to be 'winners'. Again, this principle does not appear to have any validity in the eyes of the current Israeli government. Sharon makes it clear that, in his vision, the interests of both parties are totally incompatible. Rather than focusing on opportunities for mutual benefit, he emphasizes what he perceives as his own interests. By stigmatizing and systematically humiliating Yasser Arafat, Sharon presents the chairman of the Palestinian Authority as an adversary – not as a partner.

Eventually, any negotiation process involves a certain capacity for empathy. Negotiating means above all attempting to understand the other and, at least, listening to what he or she has to say. It requires the recognition that the other party also knows fears and suffering, frustrations and hatred, expectations and hopes. Most of the time, these feelings are similar for both parties; indeed they are mirrored in the feelings of the other side. By gaining awareness of this similarity between the parties, it is possible to share the conviction that an end to the conflict might be possible. Yet, the invasion of Palestinian territory by the Israeli army and the suicide attacks by Palestinian fighters on Israeli targets prevent any empathy with the pain suffered by the other side. Each party gives its own interpretation of the conflict and focuses its attention on its own victims. Palestinians call the recent invasion a massacre, whereas Sharon contends that 'We – as Israelis – are the victims of the terrorism'.[2]

The Franco-German Precedent

Without the sustained support of regional and international powers, Israelis and Palestinians will not be able to engage in a normalization process. In this regard, it is important to highlight the Saudi Arabian proposal adopted by all Arab leaders and supported by the UN Security Council, the United States, the European Union and Russia. Suppose that, as a result of this proposal or a similar initiative, an agreement is ultimately found between the two parties. Signing and abiding by such a settlement would only be a first step. Fostering peace is not simply a matter of bringing political leaders together in international summits. Rather, it is a matter of changing deeply entrenched beliefs.

Lasting change requires adjustment of the self-identities of the parties. The process by which Israeli and Palestinian identities have been created has indeed to some extent been based on the rejection of the other – who the other is, what the other thinks. Both nations are represented as heterogeneous and independent of each other. To describe the other side, the official representatives of each community resort to stereotypes and preconceived ideas of a fundamentally aggressive nature. As an example, the Israeli and Palestinian authorities have developed different narratives about the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Both interpretations are based on the negation of the other, in the hope that this might bolster the legitimacy of each side's own cause.

In this regard, the need for a rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians raises difficult issues. How can former adversaries deal with the consequences of a violent past? Is it possible for them to live together and even work as partners in such circumstances? The process undergone between France and Germany since the end of World War II demonstrates that 'yesterday's hereditary enemies' may become 'determined friends'.[3] It shows that relations between former enemies can be transformed – but that such a transformation primarily implies a new, more complex relation to otherness.

In 1958, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer decided to put an end to the calls for mutual destruction that had poisoned the existence of their countries for several decades, if not centuries. This change did not occur in the twinkling of an eye. It required, among other things, profound modifications in the attitudes adopted by each country vis-à-vis the other. Since their rapprochement, for instance, the authorities of the two states have systematically tried to avoid being locked into memories that are strictly national. They recognize that national perceptions overlap and have to be considered as mutually dependent. The purpose is to develop a 'common language' capable of encompassing the conflictual past of the two nations. At the very least, the aim is to establish a minimum basis for a common interpretation of future events – the ultimate goal being to increase the potential for a rapprochement rather than to encourage further distancing. Former French prime minister Lionel Jospin summed up this process: memory should not be considered as 'a way to awaken ancient sufferings' but as 'a tool allowing people to make peace with the past, without forgetting previous wounds'.[4]

The Franco-German case shows that national identities – which are to a large extent constructed – can actually be changed. To achieve such change, several conditions are required. The first is that the moment be right; the parties must be ready for action. This implies that they perceive themselves to be in a mutually hurtful stalemate and that they envisage the possibility of a way out. The Franco-German case is revealing in this regard. Losses and devastation caused by World War II made French and German leaders conscious of the intolerable cost and inanity of their struggles. Moreover, they perceived European construction as a way to bring their antagonism to an end.

The second condition concerns the intention and the will of all protagonists. Indeed, the only way in which a process of rapprochement can be undertaken is if all parties perceive the effort as necessary and profitable. Former belligerents will try to commit themselves only if it serves their national interests. This is also true of the Franco-German case after the war. In September 1962, Chancellor Adenauer claimed that 'thanks to God, the interest of France coincides with the interest of Germany'. De Gaulle later asserted that 'it is clear that our interests meet and will meet more and more. Germany needs us as much as we need it'. Indeed, after World War II, the project of European construction corresponded with both French and German interests.

Eventually, a third condition turns out to be fundamental: the personal and relational aspect. The representatives of each party must of course be skilled negotiators; they must be flexible, sensitive, imaginative, patient and tenacious. However, in addition to possessing these qualities, they must be able to secure the loyalty of their respective populations. In this respect, a very important factor of credibility lies in the personal past of the leader. Things will proceed more smoothly where the rapprochement is advocated by a person who has accomplished heroic deeds against the enemy with whom reconciliation is being sought. This person then asks the population to undergo a transformation that he himself has undergone, namely, overcoming resentment towards the former enemy. For instance, de Gaulle's historical legitimacy probably helped the French people to change their image of the Germans.

Admittedly, the Franco-German case constitutes an ideal normative model and looks like a magical solution when applied to the Middle East. It would be vain to formulate general considerations without taking into account the concrete circumstances in Israel and Palestine. As far as common interests and the moment being right are concerned, voices on both sides are increasingly being raised over the fact that the parties find themselves in a mutually destructive stalemate. The mounting cost of the occupation of Palestinian territories creates the necessity of a rapprochement. On the personal and relational level, the gap between Sharon and Arafat looks purely and simply unbridgeable. Moreover, each leader's personal past constitutes a real obstacle to gaining the other community's adherence. Arafat is constantly blamed in Israel for his terrorist past, whereas most Palestinians emphasize Sharon's role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982.

Signs of Hope

In these circumstances, a common involvement in favour of a rapprochement is difficult to imagine. However, it is crucial to underline some signs of hope. On the Israeli side, the traditional notion of national identity is more and more questioned in civil society. The Peace Now movement continues to hold demonstrations under the banner 'Get out of the territories – get back to ourselves'.[5] In a similar vein, an increasing number of youth, soldiers and reservists refuse to serve in the occupied territories. As one of them puts it, 'those who believe that ending the military occupation and the evacuation of the settlers will resolve the conflict are mistaken. It is naive to think that a flag, an anthem and an emblem will solve the Palestinians' problems. As long as millions of people live in sub-humane conditions and perceive Israel ... to be the main culprit, this area will not know rest'.[6]

Finally, those who are known in Israel as the 'New Historians' also seem to be convinced that a rapprochement with the Palestinians is imperative.[7] In numerous books and articles, they have called for the revision of national identities and national myths that have been presented as eternal and universal truths. For Tom Segev, for instance, 'the education system and official commemorations encourage the development of nationalism and somehow justify any action that is supposed to contribute to the defence of Israel, even if these actions lead to the repression of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories'.[8] According to Ilan Greilsammer, Professor of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, a plurality of views and memories are developing so that 'the monolithic official version progressively loses its influence. We start hearing voices in Israel, rather than the voice of Israel.'[9]

Such an approach requires a certain capacity for empathy. The purpose is not to impose a unique vision of reality but to think through the conditions of coexistence in a situation of diverging experiences. The present communities are no longer considered as possessing identities that are altogether heterogeneous and independent. They are seen as peoples who are bound together by links derived from history and who have inflicted wounds on each other. The understanding of the sufferings endured by the other turns out to be a decisive step in the process of rapprochement. It is a necessary condition to temper, or alleviate, the pain associated with the remembrance of difficult past events. The distance acquired through this process of understanding and recognition forms a backdrop that allows the parties to consider their conflict as belonging to the past, without experiencing it as a burden pertaining once more to the present.

To achieve this end, time is needed. Some particularly traumatizing events can be inexpressible and inaudible for a certain 'latent period'. There seems to be no rule in this matter. However, it is reasonable to think that any conflict transformation will take several generations. This kind of evolution can probably never be imposed on a population that is still deeply wounded by the past. Therefore, the current violence cannot be seen otherwise than as absurd and completely counterproductive. Military actions taking place today prevent one from recognizing – despite the validity of one's own claims – that the other too has valid claims.

The Franco-German case shows that, although individuals' representations are resistant to change, change is possible. There is no reason to believe that the change from a zero-sum struggle to a win–win situation can be implemented only in given countries. Of course, uncertainties do remain. For this reason, it is difficult to come to any definitive conclusions. One can, however, see that there is no alternative to negotiating identity in order to bring opponents closer in a durable manner. Not engaging in this path postpones the process for at least one generation. Let us pray that it not be for several.

Valérie Rosoux
National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS), Centre for International Conflicts and Crises Studies Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium


[1] Le Monde, 12 April 2002.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Charles de Gaulle, Discours et messages, 1962–1965 [Speeches and Correspondence] (Paris: Plon, 1970), p. 428.

[4] Symposium organized by Arte on 'Memory and Identity', Genshagen Castle, Berlin, 24–25 September 1999.

[5] Jerusalem Post, 5 February 2002.

[6] Statement by Igal Rosenberg, one of the organizers of the 'Letter of the 12th Graders'; available at http://www.nimn. org/refuse/IgalRosenberg.html.

[7] See Tom Segev, 'Sans Etat, les Palestiniens ne sortiront pas du stade du terrorisme' [Without a State, the Palestinians Cannot Put Terrorism Behind Them], Le Monde, 3 April 2002.

[8] Tom Segev, Le septième million: Les Israéliens et le génocide [The Seventh Million: The Israelis and Genocide] (Paris: Liana Levi, 1993), p. 591.

[9] Ilan Greilsammer, La nouvelle histoire: Essai sur une nouvelle identité nationale [The New History: Reflections on a New National Identity] (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), p. 493.