The Peace Process and Intercommunal Strife

VOL. 17


No. 1
P. 3
The West Bank and Gaza Strip, 1967-87
The Peace Process and Intercommunal Strife


It is a safe assignment to serve as an analyst dealing with the Middle East. One's gloomy forecasts are almost invariably confirmed and even perceived as quite cheerful: everyone expects even worse news.

It is also a permanent job, as nothing seems to change and no solution is in sight. Issues raised twenty or even forty years ago seem valid forever. So, one need not alter one's messages, as they seem perennially relevant; nor should one suggest new remedies. The problem, once defined, remains unaltered, and the paradigm-durable. After all, we are no closer to resolving the conundrum. So why bother to redefine it?

One reason for the conservative approach to Middle Eastern problems, besides intellectual laziness, is the blinding blaze of the Israeli-Arab conflict. This perpetual conflagration dominates the horizon and eclipses all other quarrels which tear the vast region apart. The world is transfixed by the century-old tragedy of Jew and Arab fighting for the possession of the Holy Land. So profound is this tragedy that it dominates the Middle East scene and subsumes all its malaise.

Nobody can remain indifferent to the Israeli-Arab conflict. The drama of Israel, rising from the ashes; the two thousand years of Jewish-Gentile encounter; the plight of the Palestinians who have to pay for the wickedness of others; the image of the quintessential victim turned oppressor, the biblical association-all evoke powerful emotions, which turn this strife into an ideological, spiritual shibboleth, not an international conflict.

So powerful is the hypnotizing effect of the Israeli-Arab conflict that one pays little attention to fundamental changes that have transformed the situation in the Middle East since the conflict first appeared on the international agenda. The almost axiomatic conviction that the Israeli- Arab conflict is the core trouble of the region remains an ideological precept but has long ago been overtaken by events; the perception that the Fertile Crescent is still in the era of wars that change geopolitical facts is the premise prompting diplomats and politicians to engage in a "peace process." Yet, this premise is in itself obsolete after Camp David, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and the Lebanon campaign of 1982. These events ushered a new phase for Israel and its neighbors that can be called unstable equilibrium. It is an unstable system maintained by Israel and Syria. Each needs the other as an enemy; each, for its own reasons, needs the conflict to continue unresolved but in a manner that will not explode into an all-out war. This equilibrium is facilitated by the cold yet durable peace between Israel and Egypt, the vulnerability of the Hashimite regime in Jordan, and the profound impact of the Iran-Iraq war. The notion that the Palestinian cause can serve as a battle cry that will shatter the unstable equilibrium is maintained only by a minority of ideologically motivated observers (in Israel and in the West), who in their despair believe in a deus ex machina that will resolve the century old Jewish-Arab feud. The Palestinians themselves have given up that hope. The Arab states care very little about the Palestinians, as was demonstrated quite clearly during the Lebanon campaign and since. They believe they have done for the Palestinians what they could and involve themselves in the Palestinian cause only when it serves their interests.

The Israeli-Arab conflict, which for forty years has been a region-wide, interstate conflict, has shrunk to its original core, namely, the Israeli- Palestinian intercommunal strife. This major turning point, which, if true, renders the traditional paradigm obsolete and requires reformulation of options and choices, is not acknowledged by most observers. It is precisely in perceiving the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship at the end of the 1980s that denial, evasion, and ideological catechism are most powerful.

To understand the new phase in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship one must return to the formative phase of this tragic encounter. To be sure, one can fix the starting point at the end of World War I, or even earlier, in 1882 when the first Zionist settlement was established. But it seems that the mid-1930s and, more specifically, the Arab Revolt of 1936 and its aftermath, have defined the contours of the dispute and form the point to which we can trace back present relationships, perceptions, and even strategies. In the mid- 1930s, both the Jewish and Palestinian communities had developed into cohesive and self-sustaining societies and moved irrevocably and consciously toward total confrontation. The Palestinians, aware of their growing national power, endorsed the "armed struggle" as their strategy and launched the Arab Revolt-a tremendous effort to overthrow the British Mandate and destroy the Zionist enterprise. Their primary targets were the British, because they viewed the Zionists as white-settler colonists, totally dependent on the British, a non-viable society bound to disappear once the colonial power was ousted. The Zionist reaction to that mortal danger was just as powerful. Even the most moderate among them understood that a bloody showdown was inevitable. They had to abandon their earlier, naive, and self-serving perception of the conflict as an international class struggle or as a tragic misunderstanding caused by the ignorance of the natives, who would learn to accept the Jews because of the material benefits they brought. The Zionists realized that they faced a national movement but could not grant it legitimacy; therefore, they depicted it as a fascist, reactionary gang of murderers. The Zionists, like their adversaries, viewed the Palestinians as a non-viable society, an offshoot of the Arab world, not an independent factor.

Since 1936, the perceptions of both Palestinians and Jews have been characterized by exclusionary attitudes; the conflict has been perceived as a zero-sum game and an externally generated dispute. Both sides have ignored or underestimated the other and viewed it as an object, manipulated by external forces. As a result, they have seen no point in trying to relate to their adversary directly but rather have opted to deal with the external forces that controlled it. These perceptions have persisted and have even been exacerbated. The defeat of the Palestinians in 1937-38 prompted the neighboring Arab countries to take over their cause, a move that confirmed Jewish perceptions of the Palestinians as an externally generated force. The 1948 war reinforced these perceptions. The total collapse and physical destruction of Palestinian society completed the process of externalization, as objective reality caught up with the perceived reality. The intercommunal strife became a conflict between sovereign states, the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Palestinians themselves assisted the Israelis in redefining the conflict. During the Pan-Arab, Nasserite era Palestinian activists perceived their national struggle in the broader, anti-imperialist context. They clung to their old perceptions of the "Zionist entity" as a neo-colonial, non-viable phenomenon, relying for its sheer survival on imperialist power.

The 1967 war, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the 1973 war did not change these perceptions, which by now have become fundamental credo. They persisted despite the gradual elimination of external, interstate disputes culminating in the signing of the Israeli- Egyptian peace treaty. They have not changed despite the exacerbation of the intercommunal strife between Jews and Arabs in the occupied territories, for they satisfy deep-seated psychological needs and enable both sides to believe in the exclusivity of their claims.

The inability of both sides to accept the legitimacy of the other side even as an enemy, let alone as a partner for peace negotiations, is central to understanding the failure of traditional diplomacy in its attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The diplomatic vocabulary is not designed to cope with fundamental issues of self-identity, self-expression, existential fears of annihilation, clash of symbolic interests, and absolute justice. Intercommunal disputes of such proportions are beyond diplomacy, and therefore the attempts to resolve them through a traditional "peace process" approach are bound to fail.

The peace process is a linear, means-end effort to transform a war situation into peaceful conditions. It is designed to formulate answers to the questions that result from a clash of national interests in the international arena. In order for the peace process to be effective, certain conditions must be met. First, it must take place within the context of an international system. This system is based on recognition of its national members as legitimate, independent actors who may interact with other members on an equal basis. Participants in the peace process must be perceived as accredited entities, who represent an extraneous power structure over whom other members have no authority and who report to independent constituencies. The basic right of the enemy to an autonomous and separate identity is not an issue for discussion. Rather, the issue is the circumstances under which this right is exercised. It is only within this procedural context that the peace process can function.

Substantive issues have their own constraints. The peace process must be premised on the assumption that the conflict is not a zero-sum game, and the belligerents must be prepared to participate in negotiations in which concessions and compromises can take place. Issues must be translatable into clearly defined texts and must focus on concrete issues of dispute.

It is only because all those conditions were met that the peace process between Israel and Egypt was successfully concluded; it is because none of these conditions could be met that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has not been resolved by a similar process.

In Security Council Resolution 338, both Israel and Egypt agreed upon a means-end effort to transform belligerency into peaceful relations within the context of the international system. Sadat's visit to Jerusalem symbolized the recognition of Israel as a legitimate actor and the Israeli public as an autonomous and independent constituency. Secret Israeli-Egyptian meetings (prior to official negotiations) established a positive sum game: the return of Sinai and an unconditional recognition of Egyptian sovereignty in exchange for security arrangements. Bilateral issues could be translated into a clearly defined text, and disputed issues could be broken down into concrete items on which concessions and compromises could eventually be reached.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is stalled at the critical preprocedural phase. Although objective observers would like to define the dispute as one involving a clash of national entities struggling for the same land, this definition is not accepted by the adversaries. The core of this conflict is understood by them as "survival." The struggle goes beyond the apparent physical survival of the peoples involved and encompasses basic issues of identity and integrity. Therefore, the core of this issue is nonnegotiable, for issues of identity are zero-sum games. Neither side can afford to take the risk of recognizing the other as legitimate, for in so doing it jeopardizes its own claim. For the Israelis, the mere recognition of the Palestinian claim negates their own legitimacy and existence. For the Palestinians, recognition of the Israelis means a fatal dilution of their claim and integrity, a playing of their last card. Neither side can recognize the other, for to do so will destroy the very basis of their exclusive claim. Because neither side can afford to recognize the other, there is no base from which to negotiate.

Furthermore, as noted above, the peace process must take place within the framework of the international system. In order to do so, however, both members must be full members of that system. Negotiations take place around tables with representatives of the belligerent parties equipped with their symbols of legitimacy. Diplomats present credentials, flags are dis- played, and national anthems respected. Yet, the very core of the conflict is over the legitimacy of these symbols. Participation itself implies a symbolic concession too great for the opposition. In the normal peace process, enemies recognize the other's legitimacy to exist as an entity, albeit a belligerent. The normal issue is not the right of the opposition to exist, but rather mutual relationships. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as we have already seen, the basis of the conflict is that very existence.

To be sure, the status of Israelis and Palestinians is asymmetrical. Israel is recognized as a sovereign state, and her legitimacy is not disputed by most countries (including some Arab countries). The Palestinians are internationally recognized as a quasi-national entity, but that status is too ambiguous to allow them participation in the international system as equal partners. Recognition is denied to them because the status of an independent and equal actor implies acknowledgment of their right to self- determination and the existence of an autonomous and separate constituency represented by a recognized leadership.

The denial of this basic recognition of the Palestinians is shared by the three major actors in the process, namely, the U.S., Jordan, and, of course, Israel. The Palestinians, on their part, refuse to recognize Israel. It is basically Israel's veto and Palestinian refusal that prevent any progress.

Yet, the process must continue. So palliatives are invented to bypass the stumbling block. An artificial constituency, Jordanian-Palestinian, is in- vented to externalize the Palestinians and attach them to a "legitimate" collective. Alternative "authentic" Palestinian leadership is sought and an international umbrella is devised to circumvent the mutual recognition issue. U.S. -Palestinian overtures are pursued to influence the Israelis indirectly. All those repeated attempts fail, for the core problem cannot be tackled. "Peace initiatives," such a critical part of the jargon of the peace process, repeatedly fail because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be squeezed into that jargon. Both adversaries perceive their conflict in a different context, that of an intercommunal strife. It is waged on the expropriated Arab lands, taken by Jewish suburbanites seeking a dream house, fought by young Palestinians born into the occupation, by Jewish zealots who believe in divine guidance, by young Israeli conscripts shooting Palestinian youth because they are told they are fighting for survival, by terrorists planting bombs in civilian airplanes. It is an organic conflict, where ends and means are in bitter dispute. Palestinians are asked to speak in the diplomatic jargon when their vernacular is of basic human and communal rights, recognition, and legitimacy. Israelis are asked to "with- draw," but the meaning of withdrawal for them is annihilation.

Nevertheless, the diplomatic process must go on, and, because it can provide no remedy for the intercommunal strife, it seeks to contain it, to stabilize the status quo, while retaining the rhetoric of the peace process. The powers directly involved in the diplomatic process, the U.S., Jordan, and Israel, are well aware of the inherent contradiction between the preservation of the status quo of Israeli occupation and a peace process based on a peace-for-land formula. They are, however, worried that the exacerbation of the intercommunal strife will threaten the unstable inter- state equilibrium. This could occur if the internal Israeli-Palestinian tension became unbearable through acts of terrorism and further Israeli encroachment. Then, Israeli political forces and extremist leaders might seek to transform the status quo by deporting hundreds of Palestinian activists to Jordan, destabilizing the Hashimite regime, and reaching a tacit agreement with Syria to create Palestine in Jordan. To counter that plausible eventuality, efforts are exerted to stabilize internal conditions through economic aid and other micro-arrangements.

That policy of pacification, perceived to be identical with the peace process, may, in the short run, succeed. The parties directly involved are capable of maintaining it through a clever combination of carrot-and-stick methods. The Palestinians, against whom the policy of containment and pacification is designed, are, ironically, contributing to the preservation of the status quo. Their negativist, indeed, self-destructive policies, allow no other option, except the maintenance of the status quo, which seems better than the alternatives. However, the status quo is not only reinforced, but also legitimized. As a result, the peace-for-land equation loses its relevance, and the peace process loses its meaning.

To minimize the inherent contradiction, an attempt is made to depict the status quo as a static situation, frozen at a stage which leaves all options open. Facts, data, and processes on the ground are ignored or misinterpreted. Decisions on micro-issues, such as the opening of a bank or the appointment of officials, are made during secret meetings of diplomats, which helps to maintain the illusion of a peace process. Implementing those decisions provides the notion of momentum. Improvement of economic conditions as an instrument of political change (a Marxist concept, curiously used by conservative-capitalist countries) assumes top priority.

Yet, the attempt at self-deception does not affect reality and is not even shared by those involved in the communal strife. They understand the policy in the context of the struggle in which they are engaged. The Israelis interpret it as a license to pursue their policies of annexation, the Palestinians as attempts to bribe and fragment them. The net result is that intercommunal tensions are exacerbated. The leverage applied is too flimsy to pull the vehicle out of the mud; the outcome is, as always, that it sinks even deeper.

Twenty years of Israeli domination have created a powerful process of Palestinian nation-building. Ironically, it could have taken place only under Israeli occupation. It presented a powerful challenge, a real threat to the cohesion of Palestinian society and to its national identity. The response has been equally powerful. Improvement of the standard of living, proletarianization of the peasantry, and urbanization produced social mobility, a tremendous quest for education, and investment in human capital. Social and political awareness has grown. Voluntary, autonomous community networks and institutions have developed to counter Israeli attempts to fragment Palestinian society. The occupation produced a seeming paradox of a helpless yet vibrant community. Young Palestinians who have been born into the occupation are less ready to accept the status quo and manifest stronger resistance to the occupation. This process should not be perceived as identical with support of the PLO as an effective political institution. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians under occupation support the PLO as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, but there is growing disillusionment with the effective role that the PLO can play in delivering them from their predicament.

Palestinians under Israeli domination, however, have been unable to formulate a constructive political strategy. The absolute ban on any region-wide political activity and the harassment and deportation of Palestinian leaders seriously hinder public political discourse. Threats of reprisals, intimidation, and assassination of Palestinians who dare express views divergent from official PLO positions discourage all but very few.

The main obstacle is, however, more fundamental. If Palestinians under occupation are to formulate constructive policies, they must be based on the reality of internal power relationships between Jews and Arabs. Under the most optimistic conditions, the Palestinians can aspire to hold their ground in the territories. But, this is not a solution for two million Palestinian expatriates, whose aspirations are expressed in a fundamental credo of the PLO-al-'awdah (the return) to Jaffa and Acre. To formulate a realistic strategy means that those Palestinians must be told to give up that hope. No local Palestinian leader is courageous enough to tell this objective truth to his displaced brothers, for they will treat him as a traitor to the cause and, from their point of view, rightly so. A local Arab leader must be able to challenge the status quo, recognizing the objective constraints which cannot realistically be changed in a radical fashion. But such a gradual, constructivist approach must be viewed by half his nation as defeatist and even treasonous.

Because no such challenge is presented to the Israelis, they maintain their perception that they are engaged in a struggle for survival and believe in the justice of their position vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Most of them see no alternative to the status quo of occupation. It does not nag their conscience because the dual system of superiors and inferiors is perceived as a political, security necessity. They are not confronted by a sharp choice, between their patriotic and liberal-democratic values. Faced with Palestinian negativism, all alternatives to total control seem unacceptable.

The tragedy of the intercommunal strife therefore continues, and no catharsis is in sight.

This conceptual framework of an internally generated, endemic civil war should replace the old paradigm of viewing the Israeli-Arab conflict as an interstate, externally generated dispute. That type of conflict is resistant to ultimate solutions and to diplomatic peace processes. The international community can play a role in containing the dispute, so that it does not spill over and threaten interstate stability. It can also help the adversaries to abandon their mutual delegitimization. But extraneous forces cannot replace the communities engaged in the strife. They must realize themselves that the continued struggle will bring a plague on both their houses, that nobody emerges triumphant from a communal strife, and that one community cannot thrive forever on the misery of another.


Meron Benvenisti is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and the founder and director of the West Bank Data Base Project.


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