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Redesigning the Peace Process

Ignoring cultural difference and overestimating politics has left us without a resolution. We can do better.

Richard Landes
September 25, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)

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.

By constantly reinforcing a Palestinian sense of grievance against Israel, activists like the late Rachel Corrie, journalists like BBC’s Jeremy Bowen and CNN’s Ben Wedeman, and Israel-obsessed organizations like Human Rights Watch have unwittingly contributed to the very war that rages. And as a result of this consensus, Israel appears to most in the West as a terrible oppressor when the sad but redeeming truth is that the Israelis are the best enemies one could hope for, and they face the worst.

Nothing illustrates the cultural gap between Israel and Palestine better—and offers a more immediate and constructive way out—than the problem of Palestinian refugees. They are the symbol of Arab political priorities. When faced with the catastrophic humiliation of 1948, when the combined Arab nations, fully confident of a glorious victory, failed to destroy the upstart Jewish nation in the heart of the Muslim world, the Arab leadership unanimously chose to herd Arab refugees into prison camps so that they could serve as a symbol of Israeli crimes and a breeding ground or the counter-attack.

For over 60 years, Arab leaders have blocked any efforts to remove these people from these wretched camps because to do so would be a tacit acceptance of Israel’s permanence and would acknowledge the humiliating defeat. (By contrast, Israel rapidly moved the even larger number of Jews chased from the Arab world in 1948 out of their refugee camps.) The Arabs thus went from a zero-sum loss (the establishment of Israel) to a negative-sum solution: sacrifice your own people on the altar of your lost honor. No negotiations, no recognition, no peace.

Not only do Palestinian negotiators insist on the return of 5 million refugees to Israel (it was one of two key deal-breakers at Camp David), but the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon recently explained that Palestinian refugees not residing in the future Palestine would not be citizens in that state. In other words, Palestinian refugees still captive in camps in Lebanon and Syria and Jordan only have a right to citizenship in Israel.

So, here’s my proposal to those who somehow feel we must revive the peace process now, before it’s too late. Call for the Palestinians to show their good intentions, not toward the Israelis, but toward their own people. Get those “refugees” out of the prison camps into which they have been so shamefully consigned for most of a century.

Begin at home, with the over 100,000 refugees in Territory A, under complete PA control. Bring in Habitat for Humanity and Jimmy Carter to help them build decent, affordable, new homes. Let us all participate in turning the powers of Palestinian ingenuity away from manufacturing hatred, fomenting violence, and building villas for the rich and powerful, while the refugees live in squalor as a showcase of Israeli cruelty, and start to do good for a people victimized by their own leadership.

To take this position, so aligned with progressive values, however, we would have to confront two obstacles. First, overcoming our immense reluctance to criticize and make demands on the Palestinians. That would also mean we’d also have to renounce the impulse to attack as racists or Islamophobes those making the demands. We also have to consider, especially true for journalists in the field, the possibility that we’re intimidated, afraid to criticize people with so prickly a collective ego. Second, it would mean overcoming the widespread hunger for stories of “Jews behaving badly.” After all, if it weren’t for the appetite for moral Schadenfreude, the whole idea of pinning the miserable fate of the Palestinian refugees on Israel rather than on their Arab jailors would never have taken hold in the first place.


Such introspection and self-criticism can be a little like chewing glass, but I can think of no more important communal task this Yom Kippur.

How often have I gone overboard, how often have I accepted a lethal narrative in order to save face with my friends who expect me to rise above being an “Israel-firster”? How often have I admitted to crimes on behalf of my people without checking to see if they were accurate? How often have I failed to speak out against the depravity of the Palestinian leadership, out of fear of being called an Islamophobe? In the answers to those questions lies the path to a real peace in this troubled, blessed land.

Do we outsiders who say we want peace want it badly enough to confront our own comfort zones? Let’s hope. Those Palestinians and Israelis who are ready to live in a win-win world depend on it.


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Richard Landes, a historian living in Jerusalem, is chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars. He is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience and is currently writing They’re so Smart cause We’re so Stupid: A Medievalist Guide to the 21st Century. He blogs at the Augean Stables. His Twitter feed is @richard_landes.

Richard Landes, a historian living in Jerusalem, is chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars and a Senior Fellow at ISGAP. He is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience and Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism and Global Jihad. He’s at Richard-Landes.com and on X @richard_landes.