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.”

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on March 28, 2011, in Israel. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Real Problem for the Israelis and Palestinians.

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