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Who Killed the Peace Process?

The Trump administration wants to finally secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, but the two sides are still blaming each other for the last time the talks collapsed

Jonathan Gellman
August 06, 2019
Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert meet on Nov. 17, 2008, in Jerusalem Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert meet on Nov. 17, 2008, in Jerusalem Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

From 2002-2003, an Israeli researcher conducted 20 in-depth interviews with a broad range of Israeli negotiators who had participated in the Oslo peace process. He found that they held very different perceptions of what had caused the failure of the process and where the blame for that failure should be placed. Four of the officials felt that Israel deserves most of the blame; nine said that the failure was mostly or entirely the fault of the Palestinians while seven laid the blame on both parties.

If individuals who were directly involved in the peace process and representing a single party were left with such varied perceptions of what occurred, it should come as no surprise that political commentators and journalists hold widely divergent views of the peace process. This lack of clarity creates an environment ripe for the promulgation of simplistic nationalistic narratives, which paint one side as virtuously seeking peace while the other is stubbornly unwilling to compromise. Mutual distrust has consistently been a fundamental obstacle to reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. A June-July 2018 poll found that 58% of Israeli Jews disagreed with the statement “most Palestinians want peace” and 56.3% of Palestinians were similarly skeptical of the same statement about Israeli Jews.

Israelis and Palestinians are unified in one belief, however. They both believe that the Trump peace plan will fail. Seventy-four percent of Israelis believe that the plan will fail to gain traction and 80% of Palestinians predict that it will fail to meet their vital needs. This is only partly due to skepticism about the ability of the Trump administration to effectively broker a deal. Long before Trump came to power, poll after poll demonstrated that both Israelis and Palestinians did not believe that the conflict would be resolved in the near future. The negative prognosis of the Trump plan is mostly a result of a loss of faith in the peace process and a deep suspicion of the intentions of the other party to the conflict.

In light of the Trump administration’s attempt to revive the peace process, it is worth examining the narratives that feed this skepticism. Speculating about the intentions of governments and countries is a fraught endeavor; little can be proven, multiple interpretations are possible and conjecture abounds. Neither of the following narratives are factually inaccurate, though each is selective about the facts it chooses to emphasize and how it chooses to interpret them.

How Critics of Israel See the Peace Process

When he signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn in 1993, PLO leader Yasser Arafat made what had long been an inconceivable concession, agreeing to accept a framework that would ostensibly lead to Palestinian sovereignty over only 22% of historic Palestine. Not full sovereignty, however, as Rabin envisioned something “less than a state” for the Palestinians. Oslo was an interim agreement, with scheduled withdrawals that were to culminate in final status negotiations. Rabin’s assassination, the massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs and attacks by Hamas all served to undermine this agreement. It nonetheless proceeded more or less on schedule until Benjamin Netanyahu took office. Under Netanyahu’s rule came a litany of provocations, including home demolitions, land confiscations, archaeological projects near Muslim holy places, curfews and settlements. Ahmed Qurei, one of the negotiators responsible for the Oslo Accords, complained that “Netanyahu’s bulldozers have destroyed any chance for peace.”

While Ehud Barak was less overtly hostile to the accords, he failed to comply with some previous agreements such as troop redeployments, transferring the authority of certain villages, and prisoner releases. Settlement construction, which violated the spirit but not the letter of the accords, not only continued but actually increased. Barak chose to renegotiate the Wye agreement, delaying its implementation, and set back final status negotiations by waiting to name a lead negotiator. To add insult to injury, Barak prioritized Syria over the Palestinian Authority (PA), a particularly damaging decision after the PA’s unprecedented step of recognizing Israel. Against this backdrop, Arafat saw the Camp David summit as the product of American-Israeli collusion; the U.S. was pressuring him to attend a summit despite the fact that prior agreements had not been honored. He pleaded with the Americans to postpone the summit, to no avail.

In addition to relinquishing 78% of their homeland, Palestinians were willing to concede to land swaps to accommodate Israeli settlements and even to divide Jerusalem. However, Barak’s “generous offer” consisted of only 91% of the Israeli definition of the West Bank with an additional 1% land swap. Palestinians see the West Bank as including the no man’s land near Jerusalem. This land, along with the Israeli demand for control over the Jordan Valley meant that the Palestinians would have control over only 77% of the West Bank for the following six to 21 years. Even this portion was noncontiguous; it was divided into two, perhaps three sections. It is hardly surprising that the Palestinians did not jump at this offer. The notion of a “generous offer” has since been contradicted by Israeli negotiators. Former Israeli diplomat Shlomo Ben-Ami has said that if he were a Palestinian, he would not have accepted the offer. Tal Zilberstain said that notion that “we gave them everything and got nothing in return” is “a flagrant lie.” Eldad Yaniv referred to this narrative as a “false and miserable spin.”

At Taba, Palestinian negotiators displayed a willingness to make far-reaching concessions. They presented maps that allowed Israel to annex 2% of the West Bank with equal swaps and were willing to limit the right of return to 150,000-300,000 Palestinians. Most analysts believe that they would have struck a deal had they not run out of time. After his election, Ariel Sharon chose not to continue high-level talks.

Disillusionment with the peace process left many Palestinians feeling that they were being strung along while settlement construction continued apace. Armed struggle began to look like a more attractive option in light of contrast between Hezbollah’s success in evicting the IDF from Southern Lebanon and PA’s failure to achieve anything of substance through negotiations. Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount served to stoke the embers of Palestinian discontent. The bloody second intifada broke out and Israel was no longer willing to negotiate. Arafat, for his part, mistakenly believed that the violence would provide him with greater leverage and hoped to continue working toward a negotiated settlement.

In 2002, the Arab League proposed the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offered normalization with Israel in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines and a just resolution to the refugee issue. The plan has been endorsed by 57 Arab and/or Muslim countries. While this initially appeared to be a demand for a full withdrawal, an op-ed was subsequently published in The New York Times at the behest of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, clarifying that the initiative did not preclude the possibility of equal land swaps.

Sharon rejected the initiative out of hand. The following year he was faced with yet another sign of hope, when the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators presented an unofficial sample peace agreement. Sharon disregarded this as well, but coupled with the fear of American pressure, this initiative may have compelled him to disengage from Gaza in 2005. A top Sharon aide, Dov Weisglass, described the disengagement as an effort “to do the minimum possible in order to maintain our political situation.” Abbas’ call to coordinate the disengagement with the PA and proceed to final status negotiations was ignored.

Abbas’ failure to accept, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer is often cited as evidence of Palestinian rejectionism. Olmert’s offer was considerably more generous than that of Barak; it proposed that Israel annex 6.3% of the West Bank, with nearly equal compensation through land swaps. One major point of disagreement was Olmert’s insistence that the settlement of Ariel remain intact, which Abbas contended would be detrimental to the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. They had not yet come to an agreement on the Holy Basin and Abbas did not view Olmert’s proposal to accept 5,000 refugees as a serious one. Abbas told his committee that he aimed for a compromise along the lines of 150,000 refugees, but he told U.S. officials that he might settle for a number between 40,000 and 60,000. Nonetheless, Olmert presented Abbas with a map, which he refused to allow Abbas to take with him. Abbas was assured in real time that Netanyahu would not honor any agreement that he struck with Olmert. At the same time, individuals who claimed to represent Tzipi Livni asked Abbas to wait until she was elected. Considering all this, one can hardly fault Abbas for declining to sign. Netanyahu refused to pick up where they left off when he took office.

Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar Ilan speech has been hailed by some as a reversal of his previous opposition to the two-state solution. However, while paying lip service to the concept, Netanyahu threw up obstacles which he knew would preclude the possibility of serious negotiations. He made it clear that he would not divide Jerusalem or compromise on the refugee issue. He introduced a new demand: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians see this as a recognition that would allow Israel to prioritize its Jewish citizens over its Arab citizens and would amount to complete negation of the right of return. This recognition was not demanded during peace negotiations with Egypt, Jordan, or any other party. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, aptly described his son’s “reversal”: “He supports the kind of conditions they would never in the world accept. That’s what I heard from him. Not from me. He put forth the conditions. These conditions, they will never accept them—not even one of them.”

Netanyahu removed any suspicion of sincerity prior to his election in 2015, when he promised that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch. He later attempted to walk this statement back, saying that he wanted a two-state solution but that it was not achievable due to the Palestinian leadership. Many observers have noted, however, that his track record indicates that his campaign statements reflect his true feelings on the subject. Netanyahu’s intransigence has led normally sympathetic American figures, such as Bill Clinton, to blame him for the stalled peace process. Netanyahu did not engage in any serious negotiations during his administration. The one time that he came close to doing so (2013-14) he undermined Abbas’ position with poorly timed settlement announcements. He chose not to back negotiations between Abbas and Shimon Peres. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the settlement population has grown by nearly 100,000. Reflecting on the efforts of the Obama administration to reach an agreement, senior policy adviser Ben Rhodes explained, “They used us as cover, to make it look like they were in a peace process. They were running a play, killing time, waiting out the Administration.”

Netanyahu has become more forthright with the Trump administration in power. During a 2017 visit to Barkan, a West Bank settlement, Netanyahu proclaimed “We are here to stay, forever,” and vowed that there would be “no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel.” Speaking to reporters in 2018, he was refreshingly blunt about his feelings regarding the formation of a Palestinian state, “You can bring models, theoretical models, say it will be good if we give them a state. Empirically, it doesn’t work with what we see. When we leave land, terror organizations take it up. Immediately.” When asked in April 2019 whether he would annex the settlement blocs, Netanyahu replied, “I’m going to apply sovereignty, but I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlement points, because from my perspective every such point of settlement is Israeli. We have a responsibility as the Israeli government. I won’t uproot anyone and I won’t place them under Palestinian sovereignty. I’ll look out for everyone.”

The history of the peace process shows a willingness on the part of the Palestinians to make enormous concessions on issues such as land swaps to accommodate settlements (which Palestinians view as wholly illegitimate), the refugee issue and the acceptance of a demilitarized state. Israeli leaders, namely Barak and Olmert, have only come close to reciprocating at the end of their terms, and in both cases it was too little, too late. Even these “peace camp” leaders allowed settlement growth to continue under their watch. The settlement population has more than tripled since Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, leading many to question whether a two-state solution is still possible.

How Supporters of Israel See the Peace Process

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the PLO found itself marginalized. It had failed to get ahead of the first intifada and later it became estranged from its allies when it backed Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. The Olso Accords provided a lifeline for the PLO; an opportunity to be restored to prominence through Israeli recognition as the sole representative of the Palestinian cause.

However, Arafat’s sincerity was soon called into question. In a prerecorded message that was played only days before he shook Rabin’s hand on the While House lawn, Arafat clarified his intentions to his constituents:

Do not forget that our Palestine National Council accepted the decision in 1974. It called for the establishment of a national authority on any part of Palestinian land that is liberated or from which the Israelis withdrew. This is the fruit of your struggle, your sacrifices, and your jihad … This is the moment of return, the moment of gaining a foothold on the first liberated Palestinian land … Long live Palestine, liberated and Arab.

Arafat was referring to a 1974 document which called for a phased liberation of Palestine. It included these clauses:

Section 2:

The Palestine Liberation Organization will employ all means, and first and foremost armed struggle, to liberate Palestinian territory and to establish the independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated. This will require further changes being effected in the balance of power in favor of our people and their struggle.

Section 8:

Once it is established, the Palestinian national authority will strive to achieve a union of the confrontation countries, with the aim of completing the liberation of all Palestinian territory, and as a step along the road to comprehensive Arab unity.

In 1994, Arafat explained that he sees “this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca.” This treaty was later abrogated and ended in conquest.

Other Palestinian leaders were even more explicit. In 1996, Faisal Husseini said:

“All Palestinians agree that the just boundaries of Palestine are the Jordan River and the Mediterranean … Realistically, whatever can be obtained now should be accepted [in the hope that] subsequent events, perhaps in the next fifteen or twenty years, would present us with an opportunity to realize the just boundaries of Palestine.”

Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala’a) had expressed a similar sentiment a few months earlier:

“When we accepted the Oslo agreement, we obtained territory but not all the Palestinian territory. We obtained rights, but not all of our rights. We did not and will not relinquish one inch of this territory or the right of any Palestinian to live on it with dignity.”

At the same time, Oslo was followed by slew of terrorist attacks which Arafat refused to condemn. PA security efforts after Olso were inconsistent; public arrests were often followed by quiet releases.

Ehud Barak was understandably quite skeptical of Palestinian intentions. He was therefore hesitant to relinquish security control over any land before he could be certain that the Palestinians were sincere. He delayed withdrawals and pushed for final status negotiations. Arafat attempted to delay the summit on the grounds that he needed more time for preparations, but Dennis Ross points out that he was “neither revealing anything himself nor authorizing his negotiators to do anything to make additional preparation possible.”

At Camp David, Arafat asserted that the Jewish Temple had been in Nablus, not Jerusalem; hardly the sort of offensive revisionism one would expect from a partner serious about reaching an agreement. He then proceeded, in the words of President Clinton, to say “no to everything.”

Barak’s offer broke many Israeli taboos and offered a contiguous Palestinian state but may have been flawed in that Israel was slated to retain too much of the West Bank. However, there is little doubt that the proposal was sufficiently serious to merit a counteroffer. Even Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, in their sympathetic recounting of Arafat’s behavior at Camp David, noted:

“Indeed, the Palestinians’ principal failing is that from the beginning of the Camp David summit onward they were unable either to say yes to the American ideas or to present a cogent and specific counterproposal of their own. In failing to do either, the Palestinians denied the US the leverage it felt it needed to test Barak’s stated willingness to go the extra mile and thereby provoked the President’s anger. When Abu Ala’a, a leading Palestinian negotiator, refused to work on a map to negotiate a possible solution, arguing that Israel first had to concede that any territorial agreement must be based on the line of June 4, 1967, the President burst out, ‘Don’t simply say to the Israelis that their map is no good. Give me something better!’ When Abu Ala’a again balked, the President stormed out: ‘This is a fraud. It is not a summit. I won’t have the United States covering for negotiations in bad faith. Let’s quit!’”

This intransigence was on display once again when the Palestinians were presented with the Clinton parameters, an even-handed compromise between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions. Bill Clinton recounts the episode in his memoirs:

“Arafat immediately began to equivocate, asking for ‘clarifications.’ But the parameters were clear; either he would negotiate within them or not. As always, he was playing for more time … On the twenty-seventh, Barak’s cabinet endorsed the parameters with reservations, but all their reservations were within the parameters, and therefore subject to negotiations anyway. It was historic: an Israeli government had said that to get peace, there would be a Palestinian state in roughly 97% of the West Bank, counting the swap, and all of Gaza where Israel also had settlements. The ball was in Arafat’s court … When he left, I still had no idea what Arafat was going to do. His body language said no, but the deal was so good I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go … Arafat never said no; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes. Pride goeth before the fall. Right before I left office, Arafat, in one of our last conversations, thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was. ‘Mr. Chairman,” I replied, “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.’”

This rejection was acknowledged by Ahmed Qurei, who said, “We refused to accept the Clinton initiative as a basis for the negotiations. The Israelis said that the Clinton proposals should be the basis, but we rejected it.”

Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, called the parameters historic. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia described Arafat’s failure to strike a deal as a “crime against the Palestinians.”

Rejectionism was followed by violence. According to a French TV interview with his widow, Yasser Arafat had planned the second intifada in advance. Records from his compound demonstrate that he was funding the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades as they launched terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Even Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar claimed that Arafat instructed him to carry out attacks against Israel.

The Arab Peace Initiative was immediately overshadowed by the Passover massacre, a terrorist attack that took the lives of 19 Israeli civilians. The proposal has been repeatedly clarified as a “take it or leave it” proposal, and the terms with regard to refugees and the Golan Heights are unacceptable from an Israeli standpoint.

In 2005, Ariel Sharon decided to use Gaza as a test case for the prevailing notion of land for peace; the idea that if territory were relinquished, Palestinians would be appeased and Jew and Arab could live side by side in harmony. The Palestinian Authority rejected a plan devised by the Economic Cooperation Foundation together with Palestinians for the transfer of settlement infrastructure which would have provided potential for economic growth, insisting instead that it all be destroyed. Soon after the disengagement, Hamas won the legislative elections and seized control of the Gaza Strip, and thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel since. Many Israelis saw this withdrawal as relearning the mistake of the withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 and a definitive refutation of the belief that territorial compromise will lead to an end to terrorism against the State of Israel.

Ehud Olmert’s offer went even further than that of Ehud Barak, effectively rewarding Palestinians with a territory equivalent to the entire West Bank and Gaza. When Abbas failed to respond, Olmert sent Ron Pundak to find out what changes might make it acceptable to the Palestinians, to no avail.

In a gesture of goodwill, Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze in 2010. Abbas delayed negotiations and the two only began discussions nine months into the moratorium. George Mitchell, peace envoy of the Obama administration, expressed his frustration with the inconsistency of the Palestinians’ positions:

“I personally negotiated with the Israeli leaders to bring about a ten month halt in new housing construction activity. The Palestinians opposed it on the grounds, in their words, that it was worse than useless. So they refused to enter into the negotiations until nine months of the ten had elapsed. Once they entered, they then said it was indispensable. What had been worse than useless a few months before then became indispensable and they said they would not remain in the talks unless that indispensable element were extended.”

The next round of negotiations took place in 2013-14. Just when a deal began to look possible, Abbas “shut down” and “checked out of negotiations,” a phenomenon that special envoy Martin Indyk tendentiously blamed on settlement announcements.

More recently, Abbas has declared that Oslo is dead and rejected any deal that the Trump administration might propose, stating, “If the Balfour Declaration passed, this deal will not pass.” He reportedly turned down a $10 billion incentive from Saudi Arabia to accept the deal, claiming that it would “mean the end of my political life.”

It may indeed be difficult for Abbas to justify concessions to the Palestinian public, considering the consistent maximalist messages expressed by Palestinian leaders throughout the peace process. Palestinian Authority officials consistently clarified that an “independent Palestinian State, with Jerusalem as its capital, is not the end of the road,” that they “might return to the 1967 borders by diplomacy, but we shall not return to the 1948 borders by diplomacy,” that rhetoric of compromise “doesn’t mean that we don’t want the 1948 borders, but in our current political program we [Fatah] say we want a state on the 1967 borders.” They have made it clear that the end goal has not changed; explaining that if “Israel withdraws from Jerusalem, evacuates the 650,000 settlers, and dismantles the wall–what will become of Israel? It will come to an end.” In their view, the Oslo Accords should be seen “like the Prophet [Muhammad] did in the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, even though some opposed it … In less than two years, the Prophet returned and based on this treaty, he conquered Mecca. This is the example, this is the model.” They have regularly and openly stated that “a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, is just a phase.”

President Abbas himself engaged in this sort of maximalist rhetoric in 2014. Speaking in East Jerusalem, he asserted that the PA does not have the right to deprive any Palestinians of the right of return and said, “Millions of heroes, or millions of free men are marching to Jerusalem. We want to go alive. We do not seek death, but we welcome martyrdom if it happens.”

The message behind these statements seems to resonate with the Palestinian public. A 2011 poll conducted by Stanley Greenberg and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that two-thirds of Palestinians felt that, “The real goal should be to start with two states but then move to it all being one Palestinian state.” Eighty-four percent agreed that, “Over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.” A 2014 poll sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that in the event of a negotiated two-state solution, 64% of Palestinians believe that “resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.” Other polls that asked this question yielded similar results.

After conducting an exhaustive analysis of the available polling data, Daniel Polisar concluded:

“To judge from the array of evidence, it is clear that the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have, for many years, been opposed to the most generous package deal they are likely to be offered to establish their own state alongside Israel. When asked to choose among three options—two states, a unitary state giving equal rights to Palestinians and Israelis, and a Palestinian state from the river to the sea—the lion’s share of respondents during the past dozen years have chosen the maximalist goal, generally by a wide margin.”

Since signing the Olso Accords, Palestinian leaders have failed to accept or counter any offer to create a Palestinian state, and squandered an opportunity to begin the state-building process after the disengagement from Gaza. At the same time, Palestinian leaders have consistently made public statements which run contrary to idea of partition as a final solution to the conflict, distancing Palestinian public opinion from the prospect of making the sort of concessions that would be necessary for peace.

The Appeal of the Narratives

The narratives of the peace process are a microcosm of the broader conflicting narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his essay, Competing Israeli and Palestinian Narratives, Paul Scham notes that a historian must choose which of the multitudinous events that occur in a given time period are worth incorporating into their account, a choice often influenced by ideological bias. There is no clear line dividing history from propaganda, and we rely on historians to make this distinction for us. National narratives, however, are not predominantly derived from historians. They are gleaned from relatives, teachers, monuments, newspapers, and politicians.

So most people are not approaching the history of the conflict from an academic perspective; they are relying on hearsay and anecdotal impressions. Those who do make the effort to research the conflict are still only exposed to the story that particular historians choose to tell. Being that people tend to read things that confirm rather than challenge their perspective, learning more about the conflict is unlikely to result in any significant shift in their political views.

But what creates the initial bias that is subsequently confirmed by their narrative of choice?

It is not difficult to imagine why the Israelis and Palestinians themselves are attracted to narratives that present their respective nations in a positive light. Daniel Bar-Tal explains that collective memory in a conflict influences perception about the conflict in four ways: It justifies the conflict and stresses the goals of the group while disregarding the goals of the other, it depicts the group in a positive manner, it delegitimizes the other, and it presents the group as the victim.

The belief in victimhood is particularly important. In the Israeli case, this is the basis of what Bar-Tal calls a “siege mentality”; the belief that the world is negatively predisposed toward Israel/Jews which necessarily translates into an ethos that stresses the need for security. Palestinian perception of victimhood, on the other hand, creates an ethos of martyrdom and resistance.

Religion and group identity can drive those who are not directly involved in the conflict to identify with a particular side. Support for Israel is understood as a religious duty in some Christian and Jewish communities, while in predominantly Muslim countries support for Palestine is often presented as a requirement of Islam. The role of group identity and collective trauma was highlighted in a study that found Canadian Jews were more likely to justify mistreatment of Palestinians after being reminded of the Holocaust. These factors can explain why, in the United States, 30% of Muslims and 4% of Jews feel that “Israel and Israelis are most responsible” for the conflict, while 43% of Jews and 5% of Muslims feel that “Palestine and Palestinians are most responsible.”

Yet these groups are not entirely homogeneous in their views. Yossi Klein Halevi once suggested that there are two approaches that a Jew might take when assessing this conflict.

“Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert. The message of that command is: Don’t be naive.”

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, posits that among the six moral foundations he identified, liberals rely almost exclusively on three foundations, while conservatives tend to spread their concerns evenly across all of them. He placed Klein Halevi’s comments in the context of his Moral Foundations Theory, explaining that,

“‘Passover Jews’ are motivated by empathy with the oppressed.” That’s this care and compassion foundation. “‘Purim Jews’ are motivated by alertness to threat.” That’s these group-binding virtues, where you have to have, if you’re going to be attacked from outside. “Both are essential.” So anything you can do to convey the sense that, yeah, both sides are right, both sides are wise to certain threats, conveying that both sides are right and linking them to both—both are Jews. So these are, I think, some of the steps that can at least create this greater sense of community and necessary purpose.”

Haidt’s theory may help explain the divide over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more generally. Care/harm and liberty/oppression are the most important values for liberals. In terms of raw data, it is clear to all observers that Palestinians are harmed considerably more and face greater oppression than Israelis. This immediately attracts liberals to their cause. It may attract conservatives too, but there will be other concerns that compete with this value.

Fairness/cheating is the last moral foundation that concerns liberals. This is of particular importance because Haidt found that conservatives and liberals have different conceptions of fairness. Liberals put the emphasis on equality while conservatives emphasized proportionality. Conservatives are therefore more likely to believe that the inequality (as well as the harm and oppression) that Palestinians experience is a result of their own decisions.

Authority/subversion is deference toward hierarchy, such as the authority of the soldiers in the IDF. Conservatives are predisposed to presume that they are carrying out their duties to the best of their abilities. This also pertains to how one might assess contradictions between information provided by the Israeli government and the reports of human rights organizations.

Sanctity/degradation relates to the religious elements of the conflict. The most obvious manifestation is the mobilization of conservative Palestinians, and Muslims in general, to counter perceived threats to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The loyalty/betrayal foundation relates to the glorification of the fallen and the prioritization of the in-group. This helps to explain why liberals are more open to criticize their own group, even to the extent that conservatives sometimes see as traitorous.

There are a number of reasons that we might develop these divergent moral frameworks. In many cases, rather than choosing a political party based on our values, our political beliefs are the result of our identification with a specific political party, which we tend to choose based on the associations of our families, communities, economic class or racial group. These values can also be the result of a biological impulse to focus on a greater (conservative) or lesser (liberal) extent on negative stimuli. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman and Nate Carnes, proponents of an alternative to the Moral Foundations Theory, found that a strict upbringing was associated with an emphasis on social order (conservative) rather than social justice (liberal).

So the individual who insists that it is in fact the other party to the conflict who is responsible for the breakdown in the peace process is, in all likelihood, a decent person. They are simply driven by group identity, religion, political identification, biology or upbringing to a moral framework that leads them to different conclusions. With this in mind, perhaps we can begin a more civil discussion of how we might move past the assignment of blame and lay the groundwork for a future solution.


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Jonathan Gellman works in the real estate industry in Buffalo, N.Y. He lived in Israel for several years while studying at a Yeshiva and now writes about political issues facing the Jewish community and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.