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Israel’s ‘Psychological Obstacles to Peace’

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Understanding is Not Excusing

There is a difference between understanding and excusing. I might understand the arguments of Donald Trump and John Bolton, but by virtue of that very understanding I find their arguments inexcusable. The same goes for the arguments of the Israeli leadership and their diaspora allies. I hear their words and find that they can never excuse their actions.

Given this difference between understanding and excusing, it’s hard to know what to do with efforts to have us understand the “psychological obstacles” that supposedly prevent Israelis from making peace. A good example of this effort is found in a reprinted essay by Carlo Strenger, an Israeli psychologist and public intellectual who is a strong opponent of the Occupation. It appears in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and is entitled “Psychological Obstacles to Peace in Israel.”

Though Strenger is an Israeli peace activist, his essay is really an effort to move the reader to take more seriously— to better understand—Israeli feelings of “existential” fear when it comes to prospects for peace with the Palestinians. Such understanding will, allegedly, bring us to “acknowledge that moving toward peace entails genuine security risks [for Israeli Jews], and to address these risks unflinchingly.” One suspects that this line has long been fed to the U.S. Congress, among other governments. In any case, for Strenger, this is the sine qua non for peace. 

Professor Strenger’s Obstacles

Strenger describes three Israeli “psychological obstacles to peace” that can only be overcome by such an “unflinching” effort based on sympathetic understanding. I do not think he means to offer these obstacles as excuses for over fifty years of Israeli wars and occupation, but unfortunately, in the end it comes through that way. Perhaps that is an expression of the dilemma faced by most Israeli “moderates.” Here are Strenger’s obstacles:

(1) The concept of “loss-aversion”—the assertion that people “are far more guided by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain.” Strenger tells us that average Israelis are afraid to risk the loss of territorial “assets,” which they identify with both national security and religious tradition, for the gains that might come with peace. It is an alleged natural bias for the status quo. Strenger goes on to say that the Palestinians are responsible for this Israeli fear of peace due to their violence during the second Intifada and the rocket attacks from Gaza. That Israel itself created the historical conditions for these Palestinian acts of resistance is not considered by Strenger. 

Strenger describes three Israeli “psychological obstacles to peace” that can only be overcome by such an “unflinching” effort based on sympathetic understanding.
There are problems with the loss-aversion thesis. One is that individual assessments of the loss/gain risk are subjective. In other words, in the case of Israeli fears, there have been decades of government propaganda downplaying prospects for peace and Palestinian as well as Arab efforts at compromise—for instance, the outright lie that the Israelis have no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side. This has been paralleled by a continuous playing up of the alleged security risks of withdrawal from occupied territories.

The result is a psychological context that magnifies a national aversion to the loss of security that may come from peace. Put another way, Israeli leaders have produced an artificial political and psychological environment that identifies national security with the avoidance of peace. All Israeli governments have played this propaganda game because all of them have been and still are more interested in land than peace.

(2) Strenger’s second psychological obstacle is Israel’s “inability to let go of Zionism as a revolutionary movement.” The surprising point here is that he confines “the revolutionary movement” aspect of Zionism to the post-1967 war period.  Thus, he tells us “the history of Israel’s occupation and gradual colonization of the West Bank cannot be understood without the religious-Zionist movement that emerged from the 1967 war.” However, just like the notion of loss aversion, this assertion is misleading. Limiting Zionism’s aggressive expansion, and its accompanying notion of territorial destiny, only to fanatic settlers is just wrong. It was secular Labor Party leaders and military officers who started the Occupation after the 1967 war, and they were (and many probably still are) as reluctant to let go of that territory as any wild-eyed Israeli religious fundamentalist.

(3) Finally, the third psychological obstacle put forth by Strenger is “a need to justify the occupation." Didn’t we just go through this with loss aversion? Yes. But he wants us to understand that justifying the Occupation also means justifying the guilt that he knows must go along with it. He explains, “almost every Israeli in the last 47 years has done military service in the territories. Almost all of them have had to do things [italics added] that go against human decency and morality—often not for the sake of Israel’s security at large, but to protect some isolated outpost of settlers.” Giving up the territories for peace would be like an admission that it was all for naught and according to Strenger, “this idea is too difficult to bear, and the regret would be unendurable.” This need for denial then underpins the need to see the Occupation as “necessary for Israel’s survival.” 

While phrases like “too difficult to bear” and “the regret would be unbearable” are exaggerations, I can understand this argument. It is the same as the argument that the Vietnam War was fought to keep the United States free. Many Americans still cling to this myth. As Strenger notes, it makes both sacrifices and sins appear justified. Yet, in the long run, not facing one’s guilt only poisons both individual and national lives. We can already see this happening within Israeli society.

There are other problems with Strenger’s understanding of Israeli psychological obstacles. He approaches them in a one-dimensional fashion, as if there is not another relevant party to these traumas. Yet Israeli fears about peace are indelibly tied to the Palestinian demand for justice. Indeed, the more we “understand” Israeli fears and accommodate them, the more we are forced to ignore the Palestinians’ psychological and material need for justice. And, justice for the Palestinians is yet another sine qua non for peace.

Finally, Strenger fails to realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just about the Occupation. His own endgame is tied to the maintenance of Israel as a “Jewish democratic state” within the 1967 borders. Yet the concept of a Jewish democratic state is actually a contradiction in terms. You cannot have a democracy for just one select group put down amidst a large population of “others.” That road leads to apartheid. Whether Strenger likes it or not we are now well past the time for a “two-state solution.” 

The Need for Coercion

It is not just the prospect of two states that is gone. The “peace process” itself is also long dead. Thus, reason has been displaced and we are thrown back on the need for coercion—just as was the case when confronting apartheid South Africa. 

At this stage the aim of coercion is not the withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Territories. Rather, it is forcing Israeli adherence to international law through the abandonment of the racist ideology of Zionism and the corresponding restrictive notion of rights. If Professor Strenger is in any way typical, most Israeli peace activists will not be able to push the issue this far. However, those few who do have come to the conclusion, as have most Palestinians that they will need a lot of outside help to accomplish this task. 

This is made clear in a recent interview (22 September 2018) with the Israeli peace activist Miko Peled. Peled, the son of an Israeli general, argues that we are at a point in the conflict when “only a focused and well-coordinated strategy to delegitimize and bring down the Zionist regime can bring justice to Palestine.” Peled’s aim is the creation of “a single democracy with equal rights on all of historic Palestine.

” This is the same goal of most Palestinians. Currently the best strategy to move in this direction entails an international effort to isolate Israel and stigmatize its racist ideology. Right now this is embodied in the BDS movement—Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Peled believes that “BDS is the perfect form of resistance available.” He calls its supporters to “embrace it fully, work hard, and demand the expulsion of all Israeli diplomats and total isolation of Israel.” He also recognizes that this will be a “slow process.”

There seems to be no other choice. And it really does not matter that part of the reason we are at this point are those “existentialist” fears of many Israelis. Those fears are certainly no excuse for the destruction of Palestine, its people and culture, and international law as well. However, if they are sufficient to preclude the use of reason to end to the conflict, then it will have to be coercion—administered worldwide for as long as it takes.


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