All Writings
March 26, 2007

Rebuilding Israeli-Palestinian Trust by Unilateral Steps


Historically and theologically, the Jews could be, and to a certain extent were being, trusted by Muslims as long as they were subordinate to the Muslims. Since the beginning of Zionism and the establishment of Israel, the Palestinians have been called upon to trust Israelis when they are powerful. Their mistrust is understandable, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands no chance of being solved without overcoming this mistrust, at least at a minimum level. This realization was at the basis of the Oslo talks.2 However, the trust that was struck at Oslo never extended significantly beyond the walls of the negotiations room.

In this paper, which is primarily addressed to the Israelis, I am suggesting a way to build trust in this conflict.

A Brief Background
I will first make a few points of description:

Trust: The Word and Definition
The English term "trust" shares its root with nouns such as "truth" – and "truce", and has to do with predictability, reliability, and risk, indicating the voluntary giving up on conventional control on the other party.3 Trust may thus be defined, among other definitions, as:

  • 1 Nation A trusts nation B in a particular situation when it believes that B will not further its own interests at the expense of A, usually because A believes that B values the prospects of long-run cooperation between the two countries more than it values the short-run gains that would accrue by exploiting its immediate power over A.4
  • 2 A bet about the future contingent actions of others."5
  • 3 "The generalized expectation that the other will handle his freedom in keeping with … the personality which he has presented and made socially visible."6 "It is strongly associated with risk, both as a problematic situation, and as a means to solve it, by reducing its complexity.7

Arabic has several nouns to indicate "trust": amÁnah, the root of which indicates quiet and tranquility.  The word itself is associated with compacts or covenants; wafÁÞ, thiqah, and iÔmiÞnÁn. Their opposites are khiyÁnah, ghadr,(Lane: contradiction of wafÁÞ); makr, nifÁq (which is associated with matters religious; Lane); and Ýadam al-thiqah.8

The "trust" addressed in this paper both enables and accompanies substantive moves between Palestinians and Israelis.

History of Mistrust
The most recent phase in the crystallization of mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians was in the aftermath of the negotiations at Oslo, 1993, Camp David, 2000, Sharm al-Sheikh, and Tabah in late 2000, all of which were followed by the intifada. Both sides failed to live up to their commitments, signifying a sign of mutual untrustworthiness.9

Concern of untrustworthiness from the Palestinian side, for example, started with Ehud Barak as Prime Minister of Israel.  He started his term as a distrusted prime minister due to composition in his government and his positions on Jerusalem and the settlements.10 This mistrust, as well as that on Barak's part, has never been corrected, and contributed greatly towards the eventual collapse of the Oslo peace talks.

This sort of mistrust appears to be rational and founded on relevant evidence on the ground. Other mistrusts, which originated much earlier in history are more fundamental, and have no less influence on contemporary attitudes. These rest on the Qur'an as well as on formative events, such as the Prophet Muhammad's suspicion of the Jewish QainuqÁÝ tribe in Medinah that led him to attack them.11 Generally, the Jews are often depicted in Islamic texts as treacherous, a depiction which is transmitted in Islamic educational systems to date.12

For some religious Muslims, negotiating with Israel compels them to make a choice between trusting the Jews/Israelis, and loyalty to the trust that God has put in them.

These two kinds of mistrust are mirrored on the Israeli side both on the political and factual level and on the religio-cultural-historical one: "Esau hates Jacob"; "Ishma'el a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone and the hand of everyone against him."13 Drawing on the scriptures in matters of trust, therefore, more often than not, renders building it an act against the word of God, and thus out of the question. God's word is always right on principle, and it may also be easily evidenced by historical events properly interpreted.

In putting trust in another party, one starts from a present situation, and fits the other party's interests, and into it and the desired and acceptable outcomes. Determining the true interests of the other party is the task of the trusting party, who must also take into consideration that the other party's declarations about interests may not reflect the truth. In order to be able to carry this out, not only "objective" analysis must be exercised but especially acquaintance with the "subjective" approach of the other party.

Some distinctions are in order: the first is between the group and the individual level;14 the second is between placing and receiving trust; and the third is between the short and the long run.

Trust is easier to build on the personal than on the collective level, and the methods that serve for the former are often inadequate for the latter. Still, the two can hardly be divorced from one another. Both levels share, to a large extent, the quality of being culture-dependent.  On the individual level, this dependence is manifested basically in manners of one-on-one conduct, whereas in the collective, basic concepts, history, and education establish the efficacy of confidence building measures (CBMs).

Secondly, while putting trust in another party is a matter of one's own will, reached by decisions based on interpretation of factual experience, receiving it is entirely dependent on the other party.

Viewing the two as automatically bound together is a common mistake, a mistake made by Barak in a September 5, 1999 speech in the Knesset following the Sharm agreement. In the speech, he indicated that among the results of the conference trust was restored between the sides; although even with Arafat, Barak had never reached any level of trust. In fact, Arikat expressed the hope that Camp David would be an opportunity to restore the below-zero trust between the two sides, but as some Americans sensed, that was not to be.15 Even if trust were to have been reached between the two personalities, transmitting it to both publics would have been a different matter all together.

Thirdly, although building trust for the long run rests on having acquired it in the short run, aiming for eternal trust may be detrimental for practical results.

Trust has more to do with a combination of an irrational leap and rationally studied evidence than with an exclusive, rational, interest-based process.16 Obviously, these aspects of trust are more culture-oriented than "pure" rationality.

This is one of the reasons that rebuilding trust is a difficult operation, and may well be an impossible task. Each party waits for the other to take the initiative; and when one does, it only does so in anticipation of an immediate and favorable response. Failure on the part of the other side to perform as anticipated contributes to increased suspicion towards it. An escalating process is thus promoted, which accompanies and emphasizes the one that reigns due to the conflict itself. Rebuilding trust, on the other hand, may, perhaps, be viewed as an act that aims at creating a positive escalation.17

However, experience and analysis show that the chances for trust building by employing conventional attitudes and methods are minuscule. I should, therefore, like to suggest a different approach.



The following proposal rests on a number of hypotheses:

  • 1 Trust, at least on a minimal level, is desirable by both parties although mistrust has its advantages, especially under severe adversarial situations.18 This is so, if not in the short run, then in the longer run.
  • 2 One of the reasons that the Israelis need trust is that unlike the situation at the end of WWII, Israel was not an absolute victor who can dictate conditions.
  • 3 It is hypothesized in this paper that all the considerations have already been made and a decision was reached to work towards achieving trust with the Palestinians. The paper concentrates on the "how?" rather than on "whether to?" It will also avoid the issue of "what to do with trust once it is achieved?"
  • 4 Trust needs to be built in the general public rather than exclusively in the leadership and/or negotiators.
  • 5 Lessons could be drawn from other disciplines, including psychology, where trust plays an important role, particularly in treating phobias, rebuilding trust after spousal infidelity, or recreating trusting relations between parents and their children.

Restructuring risk-management
On the basis of these, I should make the following suggestion: An attempt to rebuild trust, to the very limited extent that it has ever existed between Palestinians and Israelis, must be undertaken with a long-term approach. It must also be understood that taking the initiative on building trust does not constitute the acceptance of any responsibility, let alone, blame for matters in controversy.

In building trust, risk cannot be avoided. It can, however, be re-framed.  Building trust, if it is objective at all, is done through the same channels that are used for issues of substance in a conflict. In such channels, once the initiator has taken the first step, he or she awaits for the other to reciprocate so as to evaluate the risk he has just taken. His or her next step is conditioned on such reciprocation, a process that could be described as vertical. The advantage as well as the disadvantage of such conduct lies in the danger of severing negotiations (both of substance and of building trust) in case of disappointment.

This proposal suggests a horizontally structured risk taking, which offers far greater flexibility. One channel is exclusively allocated for building trust, and it is to be carried on regardless of developments on the ground. On the other hand, other channels which deal with issues of substance must be highly sensitive to such developments, and if need be cut; or else, the process risks further negative escalation.19

Thus, the proposed process consists of at least three main stages, which ideally would follow one another in time.  However, in the case at hand, the stages have to be run simultaneously:

  • 1 Unilateral steps20
  • 2 Track III
  • 3 Tracks I and II


  • 1. Unilateral Stage

The principles for the first and most important stage in rebuilding trust,  (unlike trust creating) are: 1) Unilaterality,21 2) Unconditionality, 3) Graduality, 4) Realism, 5) Calibration to culture, 6) Simultaneity, and 7) Confidentiality.

One of the common-sense conditions for placing trust is mutuality.22 On the other hand, as the policy of unilateral steps has already gained a foothold in the region's politics, albeit in military and political issues, employing it in the matter of trust ought not be inconceivable. Let Israel (with or without the Palestinians, independently of each other) declare full trustworthiness in a very limited geographical region, on a very limited issue (olive trees or a small neighborhood, for instance), for a very limited period of time (a week, for example). By the end of the above period, the step offer may be continued without waiting for reciprocation on the part of the Palestinians. Further steps could extend beyond one or more of the variables. Unlike the unilateral action taken by Israel to withdraw from Lebanon or Gaza, this proposal calls for a continuous unilateralism.

The unilateral step must not be confined to a timetable because this would constitute a conditioning of sort. The basic fault in confidence building measures behavior is that it is conditional.23 In order to overcome this fault, it is proposed that further steps should not be conditioned on direct reciprocity on the part of the Palestinian, thus simplifying and making the need for overt and mutual communication unnecessary.24

It is important to emphasize that unconditional altruism is by no means suggested.25 The proposal does not call on Israel to abandon all other channels of action, but rather to try and break the vicious bond of conditioning in a very restricted domain, time-frame, and locality on a single and restricted channel.

Unlike Barak's approach of setting timetable and aiming at solving the conflict in one big bang (that includes unprecedented concessions), I am of the opinion that at least, in the domain of forging trust, action cannot be but extremely gradual. In that it shares methods with some psychological means of treating broken trust and phobias. The latter sometimes exercises very gradual desensitization: with every step the patient is led closer to his/her source of fear in order to calm him in preparation for the next step.

Similarly, attempts at persuading one party of the other's complete and eternal, trustworthiness are doomed to failure and harming to other more realistic objectives. Therefore, non-utopian expectations should be envisaged, and the trust sought temporal, necessitating constant grooming. One means in such treatment can be ‘benevolent misperception', i.e., a tendency to minimize differences and beliefs, or at least behave as though one believes in the opponent's good intentions."26

Traditionally, trustworthiness is of great importance in Islamic culture, as it is strongly connected with faith, and is considered a safeguard against any calmity. Its importance is also indicated by the belief that, along with shame, it will be the first thing that will be removed from the nation of Islam on the road of deterioration should God decide to punish them.27

As one of the risks of any CBM, and for that matter, of any step taken between any two or more humans, let alone who belong to different cultures, is that of misinterpretation or ignoring.  It is of essence that intentions be made clear by employing the tools of the other culture.

Unfortunately, the history of the conflict is abundant with such cases, e.g., the release of three prisoners as a gesture towards the Palestinians in preparation for the summit meeting in July, 2000. This action was perceived by them as an insult, whose damage outbalanced any benefit that would have been obtained by a more substantial release. Trust was also thwarted by "peripheral" reasons such as personal conduct or leaking the contents of the negotiations.  This was the case during the Camp David talks, according to Sher.28

Cultural considerations should include precedents, models, literary works, verbal expressions, proverbs, the ability to calibrate explicitness, manners, and knowledge of timing and choice of representatives. This is particularly important as it is the people and not only the leaders or representatives with whom Israel seeks to establish a degree of trust.

In the present case, Islam plays a major role, and must be taken in consideration. Trust (wafÁÞ), an institution held by Islam in great esteem, is sometimes defined as "stable and permanent love for the [trusted] until his death, and then for his children and friends."29

On the other hand, relating to the future as if it were knowable to and able to be influenced by humans is strongly opposed to by Islam. Suffice it to recall the prohibition on making any utterance about the future without adding the istithnÁÞ.30 If, therefore, as Luhmann puts it "to show trust is to anticipate the future. It is to behave as though the future were certain", then putting trust in anything but God could be questionable on religious grounds.31 Besides this apprehension regarding the future, Islam also prohibits the believer to take risks32, primarily in financial matters (gharar; salÁm contracts), but in other domains as well.33

The opposite of trust, i.e., treachery and betrayal, are condemned in the Quran: "Betray not Allah and His messenger, nor knowingly betray your trusts."34 A person who betrays trust is a hypocrite, a very loaded term in Islam.35 The loss of trust (amÁnah) is one of the signs of the hour of judgment.36

But it is not only on religious grounds that Arabic culture, like all other cultures, cautions against trust, especially when one's enemy presents their better profile to one: "The gentler your enemy's conduct towards you, the more cautious you must be. Security against one's enemy lies in distancing oneself from, and closing-off (inqibÁÃ) from him, as it is by befriending and trust that you enable him to fight you."37

Two main stumbling blocks must be recognized. First, mistrust is of such magnitude that any action by the other party may be interpreted as corroborating it. Even if this should not be the general reaction, there will be individuals and groups on both sides who will push this interpretation home to people. One of the means to doing so is to accuse those who may agree to attempt collaboration of treason or stupidity.

The newly formed political party Kadima that came to power under Olmert's leadership quickly finds itself on the defensive following the Lebanon debacle. Although withdrawal from much of the West Bank, unilaterally or through negotiations, is the party's principle tenet, no withdrawal is currently contemplated. Instead, violence between Israel and the Palestinians escalates, especially following the abduction of the Israeli soldier Shalit. Meanwhile, the occupation continues to dehumanize both sides, with no new initiative or prospects for any major breakthrough in the offing to end this consuming conflict.

If withdrawal from the territories seemed a good idea when the Kadima party was created, it is even more so now. Withdrawal must occur under any formula that Israel can work out–as long as its national security is not compromised–with the international community, especially the quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. Meanwhile, Mr. Olmert needs to send clear signals that he remains committed to the idea of ending the occupation and begin to rebuild trust by: a) making it abundantly clear that he will not tolerate the building of illegal outposts and  will dismantle all existing ones, b) ending the expansion of existing settlements with only minor exceptions, c) providing economic incentives and sustainable development projects to Palestinian communities that do not engage in violent activity, d) removing all road blocks that are not absolutely critical to Israel‘s security, e) allowing Palestinians to legitimately build, plant, and develop their land with no undue restrictions, f) forsaking any form of collective punishment and, finally, g) releasing all prisoners who came from Palestinian communities that have not been actively engaged in violence. With or without the support of the Palestinian Authority and regardless of the Authority's political convictions, Israel must build positive inroads into the Palestinian community because; in the final analysis, Israelis and Palestinians must co-exist.

  • 2. Track III

Once a reaction, even a minimally positive one is received from the Palestinians to the unilateral steps, the second stage may be introduced.  This would form the third track. The objective of this track is the common creation of a longer-range trust between the peoples rather than only between leaders or negotiators, although the latter is a sine qua non for the former.

This can be attempted by establishing the rules of the tracks.  The following are some suggestions in this process. The track will continue independently of anything that happens outside of it; there should be no timetable, no sanctions, and no leaks during meetings; and conduct should be according to both cultures. It is assumed that if there is even little trust to start with, the track may work, provided the rules are kept.

Among other topics that track III would tackle are the history, culture, mutual acquaintance, implementation of effective CBM, and advising leaders of the parties that conducting tracks II and I. Given the sensitivities, it is recommended that a third party, perhaps Jordan, would take the lead of this stage.

It is of the essence not to aim too high. If indeed mutual mistrust is so basic to the relationship between the parties, and if it has to do with their integrity, perhaps efforts should be made to transform lack of trust into respect for competence.38

  • 3. Track II and I

Negotiators in tracks II and I should deal with matters of substance and be independent of, and oblivious to, the steps in track III. This suggested process will stand better chances of success if it is conducted confidentially. It will be up to the leaders to navigate between these tracks and decide the moment when they are to be joined. Thus track III, the trust-rebuilding track, is intended to precede, enable and then accompany tracks II and I. 

Often behavior creates perception. Since neither side can afford holding the future hostage until full trust is struck, this proposal suggests acting, very cautiously, as though some has already been achieved. It suggests that Israel should take unilateral steps in this regard, with the principles of unconditionality, graduality, realism, calibration to culture, and confidentiality, until the other party is ready to reciprocate. Then, a third track should start whose sole objective will be to restore some mutual trust. Simultaneously with track III, tracks II and I should continue dealing with substantial matters. In such a way, long-term trust building will not be held hostage to daily events.  This gradual process would create a stable and reliable channel between the parties.


  • 1 I would like to thank the following people for their counsel: As'ad Busoul, David Kipper, Neil Weiner and Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy for their hospitality.
  • 2 Beilin, Yossi. (2001). Madrikh le-Yonah Petsuah. Tel Aviv: Yediot Ahronot. p.96
  • 3 Rubin, J. A. & G. Levinger (1995)."Levels of Analysis in Search of Generalizable Knowledge." In: Bunker, B. B., J. Z. Rubin and Associates (Eds.) (1995). Conflict, Cooperation, and Justice. San Francisco: Jossey_Bass Publishers. Pp. 13-38.
  • 4 Jervis, Robert. (1976). Perceptions and Misperceptions in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.44
  • 5 Sztompka, Piotr. (2000). Trust: A Sociological Theory. Port Chester, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, p.25
  • 6 Luhman, Niklas. (1979). Trust; and, Power: two Works. Chichester; New York : Wiley, p. 39
  • 7 Luhmann, Niklas. (1988). ‘‘Familiarity, confidence, trust: problems and alternatives,'' in: D. Gambetta (ed.), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p.95; Luhman, Niklas. (1979). Trust; and, Power: two Works. Chichester; New York: Wiley, p. 71
  • 8 Lane, Edward William (1968). An Arabic­English Lexicon (London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1863; Repr. Beirut: Librairie du Liban; KhiyÁnah is defined by Lane as "to be unfaithful to the confidence or trust that he reposed in him."
  • 9 Rothstein, Robert. L. (2002). "A Fraglie Peace: Could a ‘Race to the Bottom' Have Been Avoided?", in: Rothstein, Robert. L., Moshe Ma'oz, and Khalil Shikaki (Eds.). The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Oslo and the Lessons of Failure; Perspectives, Predicaments, and Prospects. Brighton, Portland: Sussex Academic Press. P. 1; Hassassian, Manuel. (2002). "Why Did Oslo Fail? Lessons for the Future." in: Rothstein, Robert. L., Moshe Ma'oz, and Khalil Shikaki (Eds.). The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Oslo and the Lessons of Failure; Perspectives, Predicaments, and Prospects. Brighton, Portland: Sussex Academic Press. P. 120.
  • 10 Malley, Robert, and Husseun Agha. (2001). "The Palestinian-Israeli Camp David Negotiations and Beyond." Journal of Palestine Studies, 31:1, pp. 72.
  • 11 Qur'an 2:100; Tabari, Tafsir to VII:86, in connection with the verse "If you apprehend treachery from any people (with whom you have a treaty), retaliate by breaking off (relations) with them." (8:58).
  • 12 E.g., Saudi History of the Muslim State, Grade 5, (2001) pp. 29-30; Biography of the Prophet and History of the Orthodox Caliphs, Grade 7, (2000) p. 52; Dictation, Grade 8, pt. 1 (2000) p. 24.
  • 13 (Rashi's commentary on Gen. 33:4); (Gen, 16:12)
  • 14 Luhmann states clearly "Trust is extended first and foremost to another human being." (1979, 39). See further distinction in the literature of personal trust, distinction is made between deterrence-based, knowledge-based, and identification-based trust (Fisman and Khanna, 2000, quoting Shapiro, Sheppard, and Cheraskin, 1992).
  • 15 Sher, Gilad (2001). Bemerhak Negi'ah (Just Beyond Reach: The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations 1999-2001). Israel: Hemed. The Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv is reported to have said that Arafat always complained to president Mubarak about Barak's untrustworthiness (Sher, 2001, 135).
  • 16 Among others, Möllering, G. (2001). "The Nature of Trust: from Georg Simmel to a Theory of Expectation, Interpretation, and Suspension." Sociology, 35:2, pp. 403-420. On the rational component of CBM ("enlightened self-interest without regard to the hostility between the parties to the conflict"), see Ben-Dor, Gabriel and Dewitt, 1994, 5. Even more adamant for rationality of CBM's is Adelman, 1994, 314 who enumerates the following as assumptions of the institution: "An indifference to values"; "Priority of instrumental rationality"; "A shared basic value attributed to survival"; "A presumption of a shared communication and operational norms, and, in the end, perhaps a Kantian good will …"
  • 17 Escalation is sometimes viewed as retaliation for unilateral steps taken by the opponent [Alon, N. & Omer, H. (in press): Combatting Demonization: Skills for Furthering Acceptance and Reducing Escalation (Chapter 4). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p.3], thus it is the main vice, turning it into the positive one might create the positive escalation.
  • 18 (Alon & Omer, in press, 8)
  • 19 (Alon & Omer, in press, 11, quoting Bateson, 1972; Orford, 1986 on "complementary", and "symmetrical" escalation); The mix of resistance with reconciliation has also been shown to reduce escalation. See de Waal, 1993; Weinblatt, 2004, 2005." (quoted in Alon & Omer, in press, 13).
  • 20 During this phase, an address must be provided by the side that takes the unilateral steps for the other to react, without anticipating, let alone, conditioning on it.
  • 21 The proposal agrees with Ross's definition (Ross, Marc Howard. (1993). The Culture of Conflict: Interpretations and Interests in Comparative Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press, p.101): "Unilateral action" involves one party taking steps to further what is views as its interests", even if it is not adverserialy motivated.
  • 22 Luhmann, 1979, 42: "The process demands mutual commitment and can only be put to the test by both sides becoming involved in it, in a fixed order, first the truster and then the trusted."
  • 23 See Adelman, Howard. (1994). "Towards a Confidence Transfornational Dynamic." In: Ben-Dor, Gabriel and David B. Dewitt. (Eds.) (1994). Confidence Building Measures in the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press. Pp. 311-332, especially tables on pages 317 and 323, where values, tools, and goals, and the three schools of CBM's are depicted respectively.
  • 24 (Luhmann, 1979, 43)
  • 25 For the relative efficacy of conditional and unconditional altruism see Clark, Kenneth and Sefton, Martin. (2001)."The Sequential Prisoner's Dilemma: Evidence on Reciprocation." Economic Journal, 111/468. Pp. 51-51.
  • 26 (Ross, 1993, 106, quoting Deutsch, 1973:364).
  • 27 Ibn Abi al-Dunya, Abd Allah ibn Muhammad, 823-894 (1973). KitÁb MakÁrim al-AkhlÁq. (The noble qualities of character), Ed. James A. Bellamy. Wiesbaden, F. Steiner.
  • 28 (Sher, 2001, 127) (Sher 2001, 25)
  • 29 (GhazÁlī, ÀdÁb, 289)
  • 30 (Quran, 18:23-24)
  • 31 (Luhmann 1979, 10)
  • 32 Luhmann, 1979, 42: "[One] must invest in … a risky investment. … It must be possible for the partner to abuse the trust."
  • 33 Although some argue that "the disapprobation of the practice would appear to relate less to material concerns than to the general Muslim preoccupation with the concept of Muruwah" Rayner, Susan E. (1991). The Theory of Contracts in Islamic Law: a Comparative Analysis with Particular Reference to the Modern Legislation in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. London; Boston: Graham & Trotman.
  • 34 (Quran, 27:8)
  • 35 (GhazÁlī, ÀdÁb, 337; Ibn Abī al-DunyÁ, MakÁrim 116-117/144)
  • 36 (BukhÁrÐ, ÑaÎÐÎ, ‛Ilm, 3)
  • 37 (e.g., Ibn ÝAbd Rabbihi, ÝIqd (1940), I, 214ff.)
  • 38 For the distinction and its implications in organizations, see Kim, Peter, Donald L. Ferrin, Cecily D. Cooper, and Kurt T. Dirks. (2004). "Removing the Shadow of Suspicion: The Effects of Apology Versus Denial for Repairing Competence Versus Integrity-Based Trust Violations." Journal of applied Psychology, vol. 89, No. 1, 104-118.