On the Issues Episode 16 (Part 2): David Rabinowitz
My guest today is David Rabinowitz, Director of the Mental Health Clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care.
My discussion with him today focuses on the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A full transcript can be found below (edited for clarity).
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is David Rabinowitz, director of the mental health clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
What I wanted to talk about today is actually something that you and I have discussed several times in the past, and that is the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and look at it from a number of perspectives including history, religion, ideology, the mutual delegitimization, of course the concern over national identity, and what it is going to take to be able to reconcile these differences, if at all possible. So maybe we should begin with the history as we have discussed before. The historic narrative that the Israelis and the Palestinians have been using all along obviously contradicts one another, because they have developed such narratives that suits their objective, their goal, their purpose, and have been able to impart that to their own respective publics.
I think nowadays the majority of Israelis, perhaps the majority of Palestinians, actually believe in that kind of narrative that is certainly not accurate, but has been promoted in order to create a certain environment conducive to what the leadership would like to project. So what is that historic narrative from your perspective? How do you see that? I mean, I have my own views on it as well, of course.
David Rabinowitz: I do feel that a useful model to operate here is the idea of the Rashomon, based on that very famous Japanese movie, which has to do essentially with the subjectivity of perception. Because what is interesting is not that there are differing narratives, but those narratives are held with a passion and a certainty and a level of belief which often reaches the level of the sacred. And yet if we take just as an isolated example, what might have happened in the 1948 war is that certain events, this is clear, have been described differently by both sides.
ABM: Well that’s exactly the point.
DR: And we’re dealing however with the subjectivity of perception, first and foremost, which have been transformed into almost sacred narratives, believed with a passion and a certainty. To the point whereby I recall reading in the past when the Palestinians and Israelis did meet around the table, to deal with history, with their collective histories, it didn’t really resolve as a collective history even through the basis of dialogue. So the starting point is very problematic. The starting point is passionately held. Not just differing narratives, but passionately held narratives.
ABM: Yeah, passionately held narrative, this is exactly what it is, but here is what I see. That is, when you read the history, the way it’s been projected or written by the Israelis from their perspective, and you see that from the Palestinian perspective, this is like reading history and accepting it at face value, the way it’s been read, the way it’s been seen. And that obviously creates certain perceptions about one another. So how do you in fact mitigate that? In my view, and I’m sure you agree with that, you will not be able to bridge the gap between the two sides. Obviously history’s not the only impediment, we’ll be talking about other elements. But you cannot bridge the gap between the two sides unless you can create a narrative that is more or less acceptable to both sides.
Let’s talk about the real example here, in terms of the historical perspective. We can go back to 1917, from the time the Balfour Declaration was issued, one hundred years ago exactly. So from that time on, Palestinian resentment and narrative about Israel – what the Jews want to do and how are they going to go about it – has been written and established and promoted within the Palestinian body politic as well as the public itself. The 1948 and the Nakba, that is, the catastrophe that the Palestinians speak about, and that is from their perspective. Israel was the culprit that actually expelled the Palestinians from their own land, and occupied it. Whereas the Israelis maintain, know, that what happened is that the Palestinians left on their own, they had been encouraged by the leadership of the Arab states to leave, and come back for the spoils. So these are the two sets of narratives that have been juxtaposed to one another, and actually the discussion about these has been further deepened, and both sides have been trying over time to further prove this is the case. And obviously textbooks and, other than the public narrative is being now engrained in the mind of most Israelis and the Palestinians.
DR: I’m going to permit myself at this point to draw on the fact that I also have a separate life experience as a doctor in the field of mental health. And I permit myself to say it reminds me very strongly of how a couples therapists is to deal with a couple for whom one has had an affair outside of the marriage. The strategy of treatment is to bring the two to a point whereby they are able to draw a line and cease being historical.
DR: That is the key to it. Because I don’t think, I noticed that certain academics recognizing the complexity of the double narrative have attempted to propose bridging narratives. I don’t think bridging narratives are going to work because the ideas are too sacred. No one’s going to give up on them. But where it is possible is to shift the mindset from the past to the present and the future. But I have to qualify that by saying that it will not happen through persuasion. It will happen because something has changed. On both sides, that there is a will to do so. And what has to be changed to make the will is the problem.
ABM: The question here that you brought about, a couple, where the husband committed adultery.
DR: Can be the wife too.
ABM: OK, or the wife for that matter. Now what happened here, the fact that adultery has been committed, you cannot change. That is, to the extent that one or the other admitted that, you cannot change. The question now is, since this is a fact, can we in fact equate the history that is being manipulated, going back again to the formation of the state of Israel 1948? Can you in fact treat that as a fact, as if one or the other committed that kind of adultery that you cannot mitigate? You have to accept it and you have to move on by accepting it. In my view neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, at least not at this juncture, are willing to abandon that whole narrative that they’re going to be proven, because neither side wants to admit that they were wrong in how they see history evolved from that point on. So that is one of the problems of course. That doesn’t suggest that it cannot be resolved. But I’m saying this is like a fact that cannot be disputed. The narrative can be adjusted or restated in order to reach any kind of process of reconciliation.
DR: Well let’s just identify it for a moment. Not so much what is required for change, but wherein lies the resistance to change. And I think an important factor in the resistance to change is that the political elites on both sides are invested in the stability of the narrative.
DR: They don’t want the narrative to change for many reasons. Amongst other things is that those narratives are a source of political power. If the narratives change, political power is threatened. And I think that itself is a highly stabilizing factor. So therefore, I have to draw on something which I think came from you, Alon, in previous discussions, and that is, who is going to change the motivation for a rapprochement? It will not come from the political elites at this time. I don’t think the political elites want it, and it is in their best interest to maintain it. I remember in our previous discussions how you emphasized the importance of bottom-up. In other words, what about the populations? After all, the political elites are listening to their electorates in the democratic setting or in the social setting of the Palestinians.
ABM: And that’s I think a very important point, that the fear of change could compromise the position of the political elite, and the position they have been taking all along has to change. And since they themselves would not voluntarily change, two or three things will have to happen. A) a recognition that unless they change their narrative, things will continue to be stuck and there’ll be no progress. Right? But that’s changed, since they were not. And in my view, they will not do so voluntarily. Look at what’s been happening between the Israelis and Palestinians going back decades now.
ABM: Voluntarily, they did not change. Which means, what we talked about before is that the bottom up approach is still critical in my view to reconcile the historic narrative. Because on their own, they will not do that. That is, the political elite will not do that on their own, unless they’re faced with potentially catastrophic developments. That is, they want to prevent a catastrophic development. They may decide well, it’s better to change our approach rather than be faced with that catastrophe. And I don’t think that either the Israelis or the Palestinians today see the potential development of such catastrophe, albeit it may very well be in the offing.
DR: Now you see, we have to at this point mobilize additional concepts, because what you’re referring to as the potential catastrophe generated, or shall we say predicted by the current configuration, you and I see it, but the political elites do not. Or if they do, they have an interest in excluding it from the public narrative, because it affects their power base. I would like to add to that I think that there’s an additional reason, and that is the political elites on both sides are infused with intense ideological and religious convictions. An ideological or religious conviction has amongst other things, one of its functions is that it leads people to cherry pick data as they see fit. The right wing accuses the left wing of this as well, everyone accuses everyone of this. But I think it’s so clear that if the holiness of the land for the Israeli right-wing political elite is a powerful belief system, then they will have blind spots for everything else that interferes with their perception, and exactly the same on the other side.
ABM: Exactly, there is no question, you cannot single out the historic narrative and say, this is the only problem. That is, this has always been reinforced by what you just said. That is, there is a religious, ideological element that reinforces the narrative that they’ve been using all along. And so, naturally we can move to this, how religion in fact is further augmenting, strengthening the psychological impediment between the two sides. So we have the public narrative on one hand, and now they have to add to it the layer of religion – how religion is actually making that impediment much worse. And that is the Israelis, the Jews, and the Palestinians, from a religious perspective, they have a claim to the same land. And this is even more difficult to reconcile because it’s based on a set of beliefs.
So the question here is, whereas like I said before, you can rewrite some part of the history if you’re willing to admit that you have been misleading. You can change your ideology to suit you, to suit the time. We’ve seen ideologies – communism, fascism, all kinds of isms – that died because they failed to be able to get that kind of support, steady sustainable support, whether from the public or otherwise. So they disappeared, there was no support for it. Whereas with religion, you don’t have to concern yourself to prove anything. So here in my view, I’m not suggesting that you cannot reconcile the religious differences between the two sides. That’s a major, major element that’s preventing both sides from making the kind of compromises that’s going to be necessary. The question is, what sort of compromise can you advance from a religious perspective?
DR: Well, first of all, I have to make the picture worse. And that is that on the Israeli side, an important factor in my view is that right from the outset of the establishment of the state, religion was not separated from the state. And from the Palestinian side, what I understand, to my best understanding of Islam, is that it is inherently a political religion in that there is no clear distinction, as I understand it, between Islamic practice and government. The two somehow blend in a way that I don’t fully understand. Now here we come back to this remarkable thing we all notice from time to time, in this remarkable mirror imaging that takes place between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Both societies have an infusion of intense religious belief right up to the level of the political elites and the power structure, which means that we begin a greater difficulty, and that is the fact that religious sectors have political power and have the power to implement their own policies, and in this way influence government policy on both sides.
ABM: Exactly, exactly. Because when you use religion to augment, to support your political position, your political ideology for that matter, it’s extremely difficult to argue against it. That’s the whole point. So in Israel and among the Palestinians, religion was from day one part and parcel of the ideology and in terms of how that will translate to a political position. So that is, the Jews’ claim to all of the land, the ancient land of Israel is there, that has not changed. The current leadership continues to repeat that time and again. The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, has not changed. That is something that is. And then both sides have actually meshed that into their political positions, which is making things extraordinarily difficult again.
DR: Yes. I think it’s important to add that, similar to the discussion on narratives. Implicit in this discussion is that whatever is being decided upon, at a political level, the eyes are cast backward to history. It is the word of Abraham and Isaac, it is the ancient prophets in Islam who are speaking all the time. In other words, when we’re talking about this, there are other people in the room metaphorically speaking. They are the forefathers and the prophets, and they’re there in the room playing a role in decision-making at one level or another. Now, I think all this simply adds to the fact that this adds to the complexity and that it makes it at face value impossible to talk about reconciliation. But, where I think that the issues still may lie, the sort of only hope in inverted commas that we may want to talk about over here is that in both societies there are strong secular dimensions, secular elements of the public who, perhaps we might say that they are too silent. We do not hear from them enough. I just want to add that I also see this in a way as linking to that old debate between modernity and the historical and religious past. There’s an enormous tension there that I think is also infused in this debate as well. And to what extent can modernity win out? Well, modernity, that is to say the secular public, or the moderate religious public, have an enormous task over here because they perceive the existing power structure infused with religion as monolithic and extremely, extremely powerful. Too powerful to model.
ABM: Exactly, I agree with you. I mean, that is exactly the situation today. And this argument has been very effective and is being used by both sides very, very effectively, and that’s another thing that adds another layer to the difficulty of convening a real process of reconciliation. I think one of the reasons that they are trying to avoid such a process, both Israelis and Palestinians, is because they know that they have to obviously compromise on the religious precept itself. Albeit not changing their set of beliefs, but finding a formula whereby they can still believe in what they believe, but leave some kind of room for compromise. Otherwise, there will be no future—for example, what is the future of Jerusalem? How are you going to resolve that aspect? Which means, whereas you have that set of beliefs, both sides have it, if we assume that this cannot ever be reconciled, then there is nothing to talk about. So we have therefore to find a formula, that is the process of reconciliation. The purpose of it is to look for a formula where you can in fact reconcile even a set of beliefs that usually are taken at face value, that’s for granted, that you cannot modify.
DR: Well, I certainly agree with that, but I like to put forward not – I think it’d be most arrogant to even suggest that there is a solution derived from political psychology, but I do think that there’s some questions to ask over here that may be relevant to finding the way forward. The first question is, what would it take. To bring, first of all the people, you’re talking grassroots, you’re talking bottom-up. What would it take to bring the people, predominantly into a here-and-now type mode, rather than an essentially historical mode. Because if people who influence their governments, not necessarily in the media sense, but it comes about if there’s a change at the level of the electorates, and the change at the level of the people, and we’re coming back to the first point in a certain way.
And really the question is, the moment such a thing could be brought about, the time frame, the time perception, alters from the past to the present and the future. Only then can one perhaps give religion its honored place and an honored place for the prophets, but re-focus the here-and-now on the pragmatics, and bring about further change at the level of the elites. This is very, very utopian what I’m saying, but I actually think there’s no other way. Given the circumstances of the moment, I actually think there’s no other way.
ABM: But you need to look at the religious perspective, the Israeli makeup population-wise in Israel. Better than half of the population are Jews, but they might called secular Jews.
ABM: And so they don’t bother actually in even dealing in any direct, effective way with the religious implication of the conflict. For them they see question of territory, who can have what, how to divide the territory, what sort of political system – they are not as concerned because they really don’t see it. Their perception of the conflict does not have a strong religious component. Whereas among the Palestinians, religion, as you said correctly, religion is part and parcel of the political process.
ABM: From bottom-up, all the way. Top to bottom, bottom-up. And that is a significant difference there. That is one of the reasons I feel very strongly that under no circumstance the Palestinians will accept any solution that will not grant them a capital in East Jerusalem. Because for them, that is something that you cannot compromise, you cannot mitigate. Whereas the Israelis, the secular, as we have seen during the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas, there was basically an agreement on the future of Jerusalem. There was an agreement, which granted the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem. So the Israelis can be more flexible from a religious perspective. The Palestinians will not be.
DR: Or you see, over here we’re touching a little bit on the zero-sum issue, because obviously no side can have hope to have Jerusalem exclusively for themselves. The issue here is the division of Jerusalem. That’s how I understand it. What I want to say on that, sorry, I think it’s a bit of a dangerous statement to make. Not so much the division of Jerusalem, but the sharing of Jerusalem. I think that’s better to say. Now, the thing is this. I’ve noticed, I’ve read that an enormous amount of effort has been poured into building proposals of a highly sophisticated and skilled nature, which could lead to the successful sharing of Jerusalem. The problem being that these proposals are essentially rational, whereas the religious component is not.
ABM: Yeah, but not only rational, I think it’s also practical. I’ve been saying all along, given the reality now in Jerusalem, how far the Israelis have gone in East Jerusalem, how many settlements they build there, the number of Israelis living in East Jerusalem, you have created now a set of conditions that is impossible to reverse. From any perspective, you cannot reverse it. Which means, in a way, that makes the solution to Jerusalem easier. Or depending on how you see it, much more difficult, from the Palestinian perspective. They continue to demand for example that the Israelis should be getting out of East Jerusalem, there will be no solution. Which means, if you accept now the reality that he’s talking about, how do you share the city? You share the city based on what exists today. That is, there is no way you can introduce major changes to the current status quo, and be able to agree. So the status quo will have to be accepted more or less the way it is. Which means, what is Israeli is Israeli, what is Palestinian is Palestinian, and both basically can have their cake and eat it at the same time.
What I’ve been saying this all along, you institutionalize what’s on the ground. And so the Palestinians can still have East Jerusalem, Israelis can still have West Jerusalem, that way you’re sharing the city, but everything else basically will remain the same. There’s no border, there are no fences, the city will remain precisely the way it is, united. And this is in my view one way you can mitigate one of the religious dimensions of the conflict, one aspect of the conflict. And that’s how I see it.
DR: Well you know that is of course a very creative approach, because as you correctly say, I’ll put it in slightly different terms, it permits ongoing perceptions which are not under assault.
DR: The Israelis can say it is all ours, the Palestinians can say it’s ours. And that’s really important. But I just have to add to that again, there is an intense religious involvement over here, which is monistic in its thinking and will not always permit creative solutions.
ABM: This is true.
DR: I mean, there’s a militancy here that is very problematic, arising out of a passionately held belief. And I think that the issue of faith versus reason is philosophically very complex.
ABM: This is true, obviously it’s very, very, very complex, and many philosophers try to tackle these issues. And once they reduce any political concept or religious concept into a reason, then it is no longer holy, it is no longer religious for that matter. So basically you’re reducing it to the human level, and that’s what both sides want to avoid at all costs. That is why I think to suggest that they can change their mind. The only thing is, if I were to negotiate now with a Palestinian on the religious perspective, I would say to them, look, you can go back to your forefathers, you admit Abraham, Jacob, Isaac were the prophets of both Jews and Muslims alike. Well, maybe God dictated, wanted that you, the Jews and Arabs, live in the same land. Because if God wanted otherwise, he would have not created this problem in the first place. So if you are a believer, you cannot pick and choose what you believe in. You understand what I’m saying?
DR: Well I think what I’m seeing, what you’re saying, are the seeds of a bridging narrative, at least at the religious level.
ABM: At the religious level. That’s exactly the point. Because you cannot change it, but you can change the narrative about it.
ABM: To create a common ground over which both sides can agree.
DR: Yes. In fact, you’re saying that those who can invest intellectually, politically, and theoretically in this area should do more because there are grounds for a bridging of the religious narrative, strangely enough, given the fact that the religious narratives on both sides are so rigid and entrenched.
ABM: That’s right.
DR: It’s a paradox.
ABM: Yeah. But there is a resolution to this particular paradox, that’s what I’m trying to say. And I think it’s there. And unfortunately, it has not been fully explored, and that is part of what you and I are talking about with a process of reconciliation. That is, you’re going to have to have that kind of dialogue about these particular issues, how you are going. Because notwithstanding who still believes in a two-state solution, they’re still going to have to face this.
ABM: How do you resolve this issue? Because it is there, it’s not going to disappear. So, I just want to move to the ideological conflict between the two sides. And here of course you have the Zionist, specifically the revision of Zionism that took over for all intents and purposes, at least in this current situation in Israel. And the idea here is that the Jews have the right to create their own state in that particular part of the world, and they’re invoking both historic and religious to prove, to show, to demonstrate, to insist on the fact that this is our land and it’s going to be all of it, not part of it. That’s the ideology that’s being held today with the right wing of the Israeli populace.
Now again here you have a question, how do you compare that, how do you reconcile that with the ideology that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority believe in, or try to promote? Because they have a different set, and I’m talking not religion now, not talking about history, but about ideology. Ideologically speaking, Hamas wants to get rid of Israel, wants to destroy Israel. That’s the ideology, that’s their political platform. The Palestinians—well, take it from there.
DR: Well you see, first of all I actually think that at heart, the Zionist ideology sprung from survival. I mean, its roots lie in survival.
DR: The older discourses, the historical discourses of the Jew in Europe, debating between assimilation and religion, and the third option of Zionism, all of this had to do with survival. What is the best way to survive in a given society? And I think that the survivalist instinct continues to be hidden within the Zionist ideology, it’s always there, in one form or another. But where I think the greatest importance about this, well let me step aside to one side for a moment and just say that I think that in certain respects ideology which is always present in politics, I mean it’s, no matter which politics, the real issue is the intensity of the conviction. And some ideologies are held with the conviction that people are willing to die for them, and blood is spilt over ideology. So let’s not trivialize it. It’s enormous.
ABM: No, it’s very powerful, and you put it very well. That is, the ideology here, it is driven by the Jews’ fear or concern over survival itself.
ABM: Absolutely this is exactly the case. Which means that is this is where the whole issue of National Security comes to play in Israel. That is, they attach borders to national security, their settlements are national security, their current political position is national security. And whether it’s genuine, even though it may not be genuine, does Israel really have that much concern about national security when it enjoys far greater powers over the Palestinians?
DR: That brings us to a ping pong you see, between on the one hand existential anxiety of the immediately operating kind. And the other one is also survival, which are really two sides of the same coin. Where I think that the Zionist ideology for example plays a very important role is that, when I think about, in the earlier years of the state, and even now, that again the Zionist ideology, the Palestinian ideology always have one thing in common, and that is the suppression of data, or suppression of the awareness of data that doesn’t fit the ideology.
ABM: Oh yes.
DR: And so in that sense, we are left again with this issue that— I mean the classical story when more contemporary historians began to look at documentation and found data which challenged the ideological perceptions of Zionism. Zionism reacted to that. It was very hard for them to accept that; in fact, some would have preferred the archives to remain closed. What is my point over here? Again we’re coming back to this issue that ideology feeds many things. It feeds the stuckness or the intransigence of the conflict, because ideology on the Zionist side has to do with survival on the one hand. But I have to add that Zionism also includes a kind of a revanchist approach, because the land that they didn’t get from the settlements in 1948 is still regarded as theirs, they want it back. It’s true that you could argue whether it’s revanchist in the sense the land was taken away and they want it back, certainly the Hamas ideology and to a certain extent the extremist Palestinian ideologies are clearly revanchist, and they want the land back. So certainly it is not only that there is distance between the two, but conflict. Ideology I think feeds conflict much more than religion, although religion plays no small role in this as well.
ABM: There’s no question, if you go back to the Zionist ideology from the very beginning, the whole motive behind the creation of the state of Israel, and that is, after years, centuries of persecution, expulsion, death, and all of that, the instinct for survival. That is, the time has come for us to have a state of our own in order to prevent these types of things from ever happening back to the Jews. But the problem with that, because it happened now in modern Israel, notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess and ability to deal with enemies in a very effective way, and has less reason to be concerned about survival itself per se. However, they fashion policies as such to support their concern over survival. I think this is one of the reasons you see this. What the government is doing today is taking action in the name of national security. You see the word national security invoked every single time the Israelis take this action or that action.
So this will bring us to the other point that I wanted to raise with you, which is the mutual dehumanization or victimization. And that’s all connected to the previous point. In many ways, to justify what you are doing, you have to deny the right, the existence, or for that matter to de-legitimize the other side in order to make your point, in order to solidify your position, and I think that both sides have been engaged in that systematically going from 1948 to even before that.
DR: Well you see I think this brings us right into the middle of an issue of perception, and that is the zero-sum perception. I’m stressing the word perception because I think it is wrong to see it in any other terms. The perception that if one side wins the other loses, is the recipe for ongoing conflict, and I notice, for example this is very overt in the Israeli public political discourse. I have clearly heard Netanyahu say that there are no two points of view. There is only one, and that is the Zionist narrative. That is the only correct narrative, there is no other. In other words, the zero-sum perception also is one which the political elites need on both sides because that maintains the past.
Now the thing is, this also, the zero-sum perception has its roots also in the double narrative, but I have to add an extra issue which we talked about previously in the different podcast, is the question of what has been referred to by a scholar as group narcissism. And that is the in-group versus the out-group. The point is that the in-group psychology in the political setting has amongst other things the devaluation and the delegitimization of the other side to the point whereby they are no longer seen as human, and can be killed or massacred.
ABM: Exactly. Exactly.
DR: And both sides hold to this.
ABM: Both sides hold to this, and in many ways they are executing that approach day in and day out. That is what, from the Israeli perspective, justified the annexation of more territory. They controlled the Palestinians in ways that can be at times very ruthless. It is all justified, and the Palestinians too see it that way—terrorizing the Jews, terrorizing the Israelis, is very legitimate because that is the only way they can actually balance what they are experiencing themselves. You see? And so this mutual delegitimization serves their ideological position, and it serves their also religious precepts as well.
DR: I have to add that, it’s not just that it serves the purpose of polarization. It also provides a legitimization for lethal action. I think it’s become part of the public narrative that many people have felt, that we see killing taking place every day in the IPC, Israel-Palestine conflict, killing is taking place every day, one way or another. And I see that as a direct consequence of this particular structure that we are talking about now, this pattern that we’re talking about. So it’s very, very malignant. It’s highly malignant.
ABM: And what the politicians are doing on both sides is making things worse. Because this is exactly— As a matter of fact, I think there is a deliberate pursuance of this particular aspect to the conflict, to keep it the way it is. I think this is where comes the idea from the Netanyahu government, where it actually believes that it can manage the conflict almost indefinitely.
DR: That’s right, yes.
ABM: That’s where it came from. That is, it continues to victimize the Palestinians, continues to portray them as illegitimate. They are people, but they are not a nation as Netanyahu’s father kept saying, and therefore they cannot have a state because they are just people who happen to be living there. They don’t constitute a nation. And that is what’s been constantly been said and repeated time and again. And obviously there’s a significant number of Israelis who bought into this argument.
DR: Yes indeed. I’m reminded in this context of the earlier slogans of Zionism at the time of the establishment of the state. And the classical one which fits right here in this discourse is ‘a people without a land, for a land without people.’
DR: Which I think fits this issue of delegitimization, dehumanization, and essentially we see this even in political terms where both sides are saying all the time, make the other side disappear.
ABM: Yeah, and there’s wishful thinking. That over time, something is going to give. And both sides, I really think as long as they continue to believe that they can in fact improve their position over time. Even though on the surface the Palestinians may seem like they are losing, they don’t see it that way. They feel that their consistency, their tenacity, their resistance, violent and otherwise will eventually prevail. Whereas the Israelis are doing everything possible in order to create new facts on the ground, to gain over time, they want to keep gaining over time. And both sides, as long as they feel they can continue to gain, they are not going to be willing to make the kind of compromise necessary in order to reach an agreement.
DR: Well I have to add, you see, that it’s been pointed out by many clever souls, many clever scholars, that power is aphrodisiac. And keeping power supersedes sometimes the interests of the state. I mean, here what we are saying is, we all see all the time that the public political discourse in Israel and in Palestinian society contains these themes that we’ve been discussing all the time. Because there are these things that constitute the theory upon which the political elites build political power.
ABM: Right, right.
DR: So if we want to talk about stuckness and intransigence of the IPC, I think all of these factors come together around that. I’m afraid it’s a somewhat cynical point of view, but I think it is correct.
ABM: That’s right. Now, I just want to add the other element that we talked about before, and that is national identity. I think for both Israelis and the Palestinians, their national identity is still in its infancy. And one of the reasons, at least one if not more than that, the continuing resistance to change the status quo is because there is the fight about defining what is my nationality, who am I. That is, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have been able to establish that identity, and understand it like say, there is an American national identity, there is a French national identity, but what is the Israeli national identity, by definition? And it’s still being formed. The same thing is with the Palestinians, still being formed. And the reason why they resist change is because they have not reached a point where they have formed a clear identity, who they are, what they are, what they want. And as long as that identity is still in its infancy, you’re going to see greater resistance. Do you agree with that?
DR: Not only do I agree with that, but I want to just add a bit of psychology substance to it.
DR: And that is this. I think it’s a truism, as a sort of guiding point you could say, that the less mature the political identity, the greater it is vulnerable or perceived to be vulnerable—
ABM: Perceived to be vulnerable, yeah.
DR: –and requires defenses against things that may interfere with the growth of their identity. French identity, Dutch identity, American identity, British identity, are taken for granted, in much the same way that, if the clock says 10 o’clock in the morning, it’s morning, no one questions it. It’s a given. But certainly I think it’s a very, very important point that identities are in fact vulnerable in the Middle East. Israel-Palestine, the Palestinian identity, although the Palestinians—I know that there’s discussion about this, but the consolidation of a more clear political identity of the Palestinians is relatively recent in political terms, in Israel as well. The political identity of the Jews does not go back two, four, five, or six thousand years, because there was a different identity. It was the identity of a people, the identity of a religion. But as a political– Now the point being, I’m just giving substance to what you’re saying.
ABM: You are right.
DR: I would even take a metaphor and say that political identity in Israel, and the Palestinian political identity are in a manner of speaking still in their adolescence. Adolescents are extremely resistant to having someone impose an identity on them.
ABM: And that doesn’t go back like you said centuries, it goes back really only less than a hundred years.
ABM: And that’s a hundred years in the scheme of things that are not a long enough time to establish that kind of identity that is going to, that they can settle on it and understand it and eventually become mutually recognized by one another. We are not there yet.
DR: I would like to also add a second component to this discourse, and that is, what constitutes a healthy identity? I think that I would probably best leave it to political scientists and philosophers to answer that kind of question. But I do think that a political identity is less than healthy if it is constantly dealing with death, destruction, and blood. And constantly dealing with aggression, and constantly dealing with conflict. This cannot be a healthy identity, and the real question is, what would constitute a healthy identity here? Well, I have no idea. But I do think that the building blocks of such a healthy identity will come about with a reduction of the conflict.
ABM: Exactly. But what happened here as long as both sides have certain claims. You see, their national identity now hangs on what is going to be the ultimate solution, so to speak. That is, as long as Israel still has certain claims, and the Palestinians have certain claims, there’s a direct link between those continuing claims that has not been satisfied, and reaching to where they realize. That is, they equate national identity with a state that is real, not challenged, and exists. And as long as, even among the Israelis, there is a state, but it’s still in flux. And the Palestinians have no state, so that national identity cannot be formed unless it is also defined by a geographic area. You know what I’m saying.
DR: There’s no clear border.
ABM: There’s no clear borders, and therefore you cannot identify as a nation as such, even though Israel doesn’t have also clear borders as yet. And until they get to a point where there’s an agreement, then you can say that they’re coming closer and closer to defining what is their national identity. Because I think that direct link to the land itself.
DR: Well you see I also want to at least keep into focus one step ahead, and that is not only what is the identity, but to what extent can each side feel that their identity is healthy. That they have trust in it. That they have faith in that identity. That they feel positive about that identity. They are proud to fly the flag. Not because of militancy or survival or humiliation, but for other reasons. And I think that it’s not there yet. In my view, it’s not there yet.
ABM: No, it’s not there. Let’s, finally you and I, I think agree that in the final analysis, all of these issues, these impediments, psychological, history, religion, ideology, the sense of delegitimization, etc. That is, if we believe that sooner or later some kind of solution needs to be found, we spoke about the need for a process of reconciliation. The question that I’m thinking now, given the most recent development both in the region and elsewhere, is the process of reconciliation still viable? Does it have to be preceded by some other development first, or who is going to bring about this kind of process of reconciliation, that is people-to-people? If the governments are not willing to reconcile, then the reconciliation will have to start from the bottom up – that is, between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. And yes, there are elements, both among the Israeli society as well as the Palestinians, who are thinking in those terms . But I don’t know if they’ve gone far enough. And this is what you and I have been trying to promote all along. That is, we need that kind of process. And we need to create it so that Israelis and the Palestinians begin to look at one another from different lenses that not all Israelis are killers and soldiers ready to shoot, and not all Palestinians are terrorists ready to kill. And for that you’re going to need also the government to support that kind of process of reconciliation. And why I see now greater difficulties is because the governments themselves, neither Israel and the Palestinian Authority, certainly not Hamas, are willing to invest in this process.
DR: I have to quote something that you wrote some time ago. I forget exactly the article, but you stated that as long as Netanyahu and Abu Mazen hold the leaderships of their respective peoples, there will be no progress in this.
ABM: I absolutely believe that.
DR: And I think that it fits with the content of these discourse that we have, because both of them are needing—although we have to add with regard to the Palestinians also the question of Hamas, which is that much more malignant to any hope of reconciliation. But both sides have political elites that they are leading, for all the reasons we’ve discussed.
ABM: Yeah. And willing.
DR: Are not going to do it.
ABM: Yeah, they are either unwilling or unable to make the kind of concessions necessary, and before making these concessions they have to prepare the public. Hence we go back to the process of reconciliation. They are not willing to take these kinds of steps in order to lead both people to begin to want to see one another. So as long as Netanyahu, I repeat that, and Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas are in power, I don’t think we’re going to see this kind of process any time soon.
DR: Certainly not reconciliation.
ABM: Yeah, no. We’re going to have to see a change a government. And two governments that begin to look at the entire conflict from a different perspective, and ask the simple question that I have saying ad nauseam, coexistence is inevitable. They have to coexist, they can kill each other for another hundred years, or they can make peace with one another, but they are stuck with one another. And this is the choice that they will have to make.
DR: Well you see, I think that we have to go back to this question. I think that hope, if any, lies in segments of both societies that are far too silent. And that is the rational, secular, modern segments of society, and the religious moderates of those societies, who are there, they are too silent. I think on the Israeli side certainly they are silent for two reasons. One is that in terms of social class, those that are more educated and have better income are enjoying the fruits of a buoyant economy which is very stabilizing both in the good and the bad sense, and those that are not, at the lower echelons of the social class spectrum, are much more easily swayed by existential anxiety as mobilized by the political elites, and keep them in power. On the Palestinian side, I’m less sure, although I do believe that a hardscrable life and a middle class that is too small, actually, is also in a sense stable. People are too busy getting bread to worry about the big picture. So there’s a silence, that’s the point.
ABM: Yeah, I agree with you, but my feeling is that this type silence or complacency is not enduring. It cannot endure forever. Something will have to give in.
DR: So here’s the question – what will wake them up?
ABM: Go back – and I’m sorry to end this discussion – go back to what I’ve said before, something will have to shake both sides. And unfortunately, the only thing that’s going to shake them, given that there is lack of leadership—visionary, courageous leadership—what’s going to happen is probably a major, massive, violent confrontation, conflagration, that is going to shake up the status quo, and the people will be awakened to search for a better solution.
DR: Maybe I’ll say with a smile, maybe if they listen to this podcast, it may do something for them.
ABM: Thank you so much, David.
DR: It’s been a great pleasure, I very much enjoyed it. Thank you Alon.