Redesigning the Peace Process
Ignoring cultural difference and overestimating politics has left us without a resolution. We can do better.
Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, there hasn’t been a moment when the punditocracy hasn’t insisted that Israel needs to make a deal with the Palestinians—and soon. Otherwise, they claim, Israeli democracy, saddled with millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control without citizenship, will have to choose between the twin catastrophes of democratic suicide and apartheid. And since the solution that everyone knows is the eventual one–land for peace–is so clear, let’s just get on with it.
It hasn’t panned out. We’re now approaching two decades of failure of the two-state solution. Every strategy for pulling it off—Oslo, Taba, Geneva, Road Map, Dayton, Obama/Clinton—has, despite sometimes enormous efforts, failed or died stillborn. And yet, with each failure, a new round of hope emerges, with commentators and politicians arguing that this time, if we just tinker with some of the details, we’ll get peace right. (Or, as an increasing number have now come to believe, it’s time we abandon the two-state solution entirely.)
The predominant explanation for this impasse in the West has focused on Israel’s role: settlements that provoke, checkpoints that humiliate, blockades that strangle, and walls that imprison. Palestinian “no’s” typically get a pass: Of course Arafat said “no” at Camp David; he only got Bantustans while Israelis kept building illegal settlements. Suicide bombers are excused as registering a legitimate protest at being denied the right to be a free people in their own land. In Condoleezza Rice’s words: “[The Palestinians] are perfectly ready to live side by side with Israel because they just want to live in peace … the great majority of people, they just want a better life.” The corollary to such thinking, of course, holds that if only the Israelis didn’t constantly keep the Palestinians down the world would be a better place. So, the sooner we end the occupation, the better, even if it means urging the United States to pressure Israel into the necessary concessions. It’s for Israel’s own good.
This line of thinking is driven entirely by politics. Oslo thinkers from Bill Clinton to Thomas Friedman believe that what was needed was a political settlement and the rest would take care of itself. In 2007, Rice reflected this outlook in a statement of faith that projected a peculiarly modern outlook: “I just don’t believe mothers want their children to grow up to be suicide bombers. I think the mothers want their children to grow up to go to university. And if you can create the right conditions, that’s what people are going to do.”
Overestimating the power of politics and dramatically underestimating the importance of culture has actually hindered the possibility for a political solution. For Jews, especially progressive Jews, the early second decade of the 21st century poses a particularly interesting and painful meditation just in time for Yom Kippur: In our quest for “fairness,” for splitting the blame evenly, for misidentifying problems as political and therefore easily solvable—so easily solvable they could be dispatched with a simple email, as one exasperated BBC anchor put it recently—are we actually working against both parties in the conflict?
I believe the answer is yes. And those who wish to pursue a peaceful resolution need to take a hard look at the cultural difference between Israelis and Arabs—and craft policy that confronts it.
Any approach that pays heed to cultural issues yields a very different view as to why the conflict persists. The zero-sum logic of Arab attitudes toward Israel does not represent merely the choices made by politicians, but Islamic religiosity and deep-seated cultural mores. From the Arab perspective, the very existence of Israel represents a stain on Arab honor and a blasphemy to Islam’s dominion in Dar al Islam. Some, like the Palestinian Authority, may have made a tactical shift in which they will, despite the shame of it, talk with Israelis and even make public agreements. But they have treated such engagement as a Trojan horse, a feint to position for further war. Within this cultural context, the peace process has actually served as a war process.
Well-meaning Oslo proponents, afraid that criticism of, and demands on, the Palestinians would delay the peace process, denounced anyone who made these kinds of observations as enemies of peace. So, when Arafat said “no” at Camp David in the summer of 2000, and a wave of suicide bombers came pouring out of the belly of the horse, these same Oslo supporters, including many an alter-Juif, rather than admitting they had called it wrong, preferred to blame Israel.
But bitterest of ironies, in so doing, they fed the very culture they denied. Palestinian hatred has festered under the guidance of Oslo-empowered elites, unopposed by the very actors one would expect to have the courage to call out such vitriol: journalists, human-rights organizations, and progressives. Instead, these groups have gone out of their way not to inform their readers of this culture of hate.
In Fortress Israel, journalist Patrick Tyler argues that the country’s warrior ethos impedes Mideast peace