Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Real Problem for the Israelis and Palestinians

I’ve been maintaining for some time that an actual solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not so difficult. I will save details for another posting, but bet I could predict what a future solution will look like. No, the problem is not the details of the solution but getting there; that is, there is a failure of will to solve the problem. There is what Andrew Smith calls in his new book a lack of a “deliberative impulse.” It is as if the parties simply do not want to solve the problem. There is no urge that compels the parties to cooperate and communicate reciprocally such that needs and desires are met. Violence does not seem to matter because both sides are numbed to violence. Let’s speculate a little about what might be helpful.

First, the two sides must develop more deliberative will. They must be more serious about actually accomplishing something. If we borrow a little from Habermas we can recognize both the informal sphere of will formation and the formal sphere. The formal sphere or context of communication is typically characterized by dispassionate styles of bargaining and negotiation. This is the communication of the elite and leaders who are trying to legitimize state actions. Many Israelis and Palestinians have opinions about formal peace processes and communication, but they feel alienated from it. They do not feel as if it is a form of communication that represents them. On the other hand, the informal sphere is the context of rough-and-tumble interaction and unregulated communication that is most influential for generating opinion.

As buses explode in Jerusalem and rockets hit Gaza the Israelis and Palestinians insist on peace processes most described by the formal sphere of communication. The representatives of the two sides of the conflict should include a wider selection of convictions and concerns. The formal sphere of conflict resolution makes people feel as if they have little chance of being heard and that they cannot succeed communicatively in such a setting.

It is not the case that the formal sphere is rational and deliberative and populated by those capable of the most reasoned argument. On the contrary, the environment that surrounds discussion about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is rife with dogmatism, naïve idealism, xenophobia, racism, resentment, and an inability to reframe and transcend past injustices. Both societies – Israeli and Palestinian – need to deliberate more amongst themselves at ground level. The formal negotiations and the people who actually signed peace treaties and make legislation are not inclusive enough with respect to the will of the general population.

Leaders, idealists, and those in power often hold strict interpretations and understandings of issues and consider additional deliberation and discussion to be responsible for the distortion of truth. Hence, a Palestinian who believes that Israel is an illegitimate community who came into being by violence and international conspiracy will not discuss the matter of recognizing Israel’s right to exist or its political legitimacy. And an Israeli who is convinced that the Palestinians seek genocide and the elimination of the Israeli state is insensitive to discussion about recognizing Israel. A new emphasis on generating deliberative will might improve public justification and arouse members of each community toward more serious problem solving. This is all in the service of the epistemology of communication because the assembly effect that results from genuine deliberative interaction can create new understandings and perspectives. It’s important to underscore that both conservative and progressive ideas can be entrenched such that they are responsible for deliberative failure.

There are simply too many motivational roadblocks in the current conflict climate that embraces the Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians lack motivation to really solve the problem because they believe a better “deal” is possible as they drag out international sympathy. They have successfully convinced the world that they are an oppressed minority and deserving of attention, resources, and special consideration. Even their violence and defiance has been excused. The same holds for the Israelis. They are prosperous, militarily superior, reasonably democratic, and have the unwavering support of the United States. Except for the moral failing, the Israelis could continue to live as they do while considering the Palestinians a minor distraction. These situations are of course unsustainable for the long-term but they are reasons that prevent serious deliberation designed to end the conflict.

So what happens is a retreat from efforts at joint justification. The two sides give up in favor of the sort of communication that is limited to those who are like themselves and designed to reinforce already shared views. This is the sort of political polarization that is increasingly common. Netanyahu speaks only in a way that satisfies his conservative coalition, and the PA remains entrenched in their cultural and political narrative. And as Kipling pointed out, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Israelis and Palestinians Confront the Leviathan

 If you will allow me to wax a little philosophical and academic, I’d like to compare the current negotiation impasse between Israelis and Palestinians to the existential question posed by Hobbes in the Leviathan. In other words, is this difficult and intractable conflict destined to end up a Hobbesian nightmare of all against all? Is Hobbes correct that human beings can just never abandon their self-interest and their will to power? Is life destined to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes declares? Is it inevitable that coercive power is the only way to keep individuals in check?

 If so, then negotiations and deliberations are naïve and futile. The only thing we have to look forward to is more of what happened in the settlement of Itamar last week were children were literally slaughtered. This image of children’s with their throats slit forms, for me, a collage that includes images of thousands lynching two soldiers, of the Park Hotel massacre, and rockets firing on innocent citizens from Gaza. All of this goes on against a backdrop of ethnopolitical hate that is either primal and hence untouchable, or socially constructed and potentially manageable. If this conflict is primordial and the inescapable result of ancient hatreds that cannot be placated, that cannot be reframed, that cannot be forgotten, then even Hobbes will turn his head away in shame. But this is how conflicts such as these are communicative and symbolic. They are not outside the influences of human interaction – they are not inevitable. Such conflicts are stimulated by words, meanings, and interpretations. Again, it establishes the lie in the children’s rhyme about how “sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you.”

 But Dore Gold writing in Isranet explains how the accomplished diplomat Richard Holbrook began to understand that the Bosnian conflict was stoked and inflamed and deliberately stimulated; it was not an ancient hatred that was too deep to be controlled. Incitement by ethnopolitical entrepreneurs who have a stake in the conflict is a bigger problem than the general public thinks. Most of the time when you read that the Palestinians are encouraging their own citizens to fight Israel it is termed “incitement.” But when the Israelis described the situation to their own population is termed “education.” This is a perfect example of the incommensurate worlds that these two conflicting populations live in. One man’s education is another man’s incitement.

 It strains the imagination to try to conjure an image of what sort of beast bubbled up out of the earthly goo to kill a family in their beds and slit the throats of three children one of which was three months old. Such a horror cannot be legitimized, but it comes from somewhere, something explains it. I understand that the IDF is often cast in the same role by the Palestinians and Fayyad and Abbas have equated the Itamar murders with IDF behavior. Yet the IDF never intentionally targets innocents. But this is the definition of the conflict: extreme behavior accompanied by mirror images of one another regardless of facts or defensible arguments. Each side sees the other as violent and itself as a victim, and every behavior and action reinforces the perceptions. It’s an endless cycle that you cannot escape; it’s the definition of interactive hell.

 It remains the case, however, that this conflict is not doomed to failure because it is so deep-seated. Difficult and messy as it is, it is possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to manage, if not completely control, their problems. It is possible to escape Hobbesian logic.

 One interesting approach to this, and I encourage the reader to find a book titled The Deliberative Impulse  by Andrew Smith, is to not assume that people are competitive and mistrustful. Smith uses some Hobbesian assumptions to assume that people can be cooperative and drawn together or at least engage one another in a civil manner. For Hobbes people were attracted to a powerful leader so they could avoid living in fear and vulnerability. Smith suggests the same thing can lead people to cooperate and to deliberate publicly in order to solve problems. Self-interest can result in cooperation. There is certainly evolutionary theory supports such is contention.

 This sounds a little contradictory but it really is not. Smith refers to it as the “deliberative impulse.” Smith takes the unusual stance – and I will take it up again in a later post – that things like conscience, morality, and commitments to community are equally motivating. Even in fractured societies and fractured conflicts such as that between the Israelis and Palestinians there is a deliberative impulse, motivation to act morally and in accordance with conscience. True, there are many barriers to deliberation which include structural barriers as well as limitations on communication, skills, and resources. But these roadblocks can be overcome by the promotion of certain types of solidarity. I will detail these in the next post.

Israel’s good-faith efforts

I would encourage anyone interested in the current state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to read a document recently available at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The address is here:

Israel can drive a hard bargain and lard its negotiation stance with stubbornness and inflexibility. On more than one occasion I’ve lost patience with the Israelis and sympathized with the frustrations of the Palestinians. But all that is changed. One of Israel’s fears is that the PA is not really interested in a principled negotiation; that is, the PA continues to gain international sympathy and has so successfully defined itself as the pathetic underdog that it can ask for anything and expect to receive it.

A recent report seems to bear this out. A paper prepared by the Foreign Ministry describes the activities taken by Israel to help the Palestinians, while the Palestinians have been obstructionist and either blocked Israeli initiatives or taken steps to circumvent Oslo stipulations and those of the interim agreement. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from the report:

1. Even though the sharp conservative Bibi Netanyahu has accepted the reality of the two state solution, his efforts to support the development of a Palestinian state have been thwarted at every turn. For example Israel has continued to work to strengthen the Palestinian economy in a wide range of fields including civil, infrastructural, political, and security. As a result, the Palestinian economy has grown 8% in 2010. There has been a reduction in unemployment and a rise in tourism.

2. Israel has addressed one of the most damning symbolic issues it faces which is the nature of roadblocks and security checkpoints. There are 28 fewer roadblocks now than there were in 2008.

3. Israel has stimulated Palestinian business efforts. They have made more entry permits available for work, expanded industrial zones, approved more bandwidth for Palestinian cellular telephone providers, and begun work on the electric project that will establish for new substations in Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron.

We could add to this list but it seems a little fruitless in the face of Palestinian recalcitrance. The report from the Foreign Ministry points out how the Palestinians are manipulating their sympathetic position in the world political order by pursuing in the international community Palestinian claims to a future state within the 1967 borders. This is a backhanded move designed to undercut the discussions on the permanent status of the proposed two states. But there is more and some of it is particularly disturbing.

1. Palestinians continue to demand condemnation of Israel in international forums. Just when the Palestinians should be formulating a negotiated relationship with Israel, one that will leave both of them strong and viable after a final agreement, the Palestinians are trying to diminish Israel’s legitimacy–a stance that will not serve Palestine well in the future.

2. It also appears as if the Palestinians are calling on known biased organizations toward Israel, such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva, to condemn Israel for war crimes. This again is nothing but provocative and counterproductive. It is a misrepresentation of the facts designed for symbolic damage to Israel and an effort to diminish Israel’s right to self-defense. There are numerous clauses in the temporary agreements that govern the relationship between Israel and Palestine that stipulates that the sides should not incite one another and spread propaganda and misrepresentations. This, of course, is sensible and productive negotiation behavior but is being undermined and manipulated by the Palestinians.

3. And the extent to which the PA continues to glorify terrorists and openly commemorate their extremist behaviors, remains a major impediment to peace. The report indicated that the Palestinian presidential compound in Ramallah has been renamed to glorify the terrorist Yihye Ayash.

These are but a few examples of Israel’s progressive efforts and the PAs regressive ones. Again I do not hold Israel blameless on these matters and many of these actions have complex interpretations. But mature negotiation relies on the establishment of common meaning; a collective sense of what you are bargaining about. In fact, bargaining is not even the right word. Bargaining is strategic action in which each side tries to maximize its gains. That’s what’s going on now, and it leads to exaggerated requests and expectations such as a Palestinian expectation that Israel has no right to exist.

But true deliberative discourse, where both sides are genuinely reflecting upon their preferences and views, is an epistemic process where new ideas can emerge based on the genuine interest of both parties to solve the conflict. I will have more to say about the benefits of deliberative discourse in another post.

The Education of the Tweet and Blog Classes

I was struck by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt by the juxtaposition of explanations for these revolutions. We heard of one set of very modern explanations that included Facebook, tweets, cell phones, and the Internet. This also included the more traditional reporting of CNN and the yet unexplored influences of new news outlets such as Al Jazeera. Even if we do not get all excited about how new media are bringing about a utopian consciousness it is surely the case that social media played an important role. It was the tweet and blog class then, young educated hipsters, which brought about revolution. This is the modern communication technology explanation. Facebook facilitates new public spheres and the resultant communication constructs new revolutionary realities.

But it’s also possible to point to Mohammed Bouazizi’s self immolation as a protest over the seizing of his produce and his disrespectful treatment as the action that provoked the opening moments of the demonstrations in Tunisia. Self immolation is so horrifying to the West, and so removed from our consciousness, that it provokes deep identification with the conditions that produce it. The depth and intensity of the protest must be so great that it has prompted this horrific act. This is the primal explanation; this is the explanation that blames the depths of human depravity for revolutionary conditions, not modern technology.

The tweet and Facebook classes are steeped in more abstract principles of democracy and human rights, the sort of thinking that comes from formal learning and classroom experiences. These are the ideas handed down from the intellects of previous generation. The primal explanation bubbles up from our reptilian brain and expresses itself in the raw violence of something like immolation.

Most of us are influenced by the Tweet and Facebook class because that is how we live today. We feel as though the tweeters and Facebookers are on the right side of history, that they are the future. So in believing that tweets and Facebook are responsible for noble revolutions, we are believing in our own world. We are attracted to, and likely to overestimate, the power of social media because it confirms our own consciousness.

It is the primal explanation that fits the rape of the CBS correspondent Lara Logan. This is a part of protest and revolution that we do not want to think about. But when we do think about it we feel as though the veil of democratic civility has been lifted and feel once again the hate and violence that is part of such revolutions. The tweet and blog class is cultivated and articulate but behind them is a mob with distorted beliefs and an inability to make distinctions that would separate an earnest journalist from hated political figures.

And Al Jazeera is finally having the revolutionary effects we all thought possible. Al Jazeera has been broadcasting for 15 years and its images are having powerful effects. Al Jazeera certainly has a perspective but it is not propaganda. They showed images of angry people and bloodied bodies and these were in sharp contrast to the spurious statements of regime leaders. While Egypt’s controlled media showed pleasant images of traffic going by Al Jazeera was showing protests and calls for freedom. It was a classic example of the power of the press to bring information and perspective to citizens.

As reported by Al Jazeera, Egypt broke its contract and cut Al Jazeera’s access to the satellite thus denying the Al Jazeera audience access to what was going on in Egypt. But fortunately, other Arabic language TV stations picked up the Al Jazeera signal and the images continued to be available. The genie of free press and information rights has fled the bottle of Arab dictatorships. It is simply impossible now, or at least much more difficult, to control the images and information that the public deserves to see. The tweet Facebook class is gaining the upper hand.

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