Looking for a Middle East peace
A lot of smart people have tried to figure out the elusive formula for achieving peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Research by two social scientists, outlined in an op-ed article in today’s New York Times, finds that financial compensation or even massive economic development aid alone could never resolve a dispute so rooted in the sacred values of the two peoples.
The researchers, Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges, outlined another option as they summarized the results of an extensive survey:
Fortunately, our work also offers hints of another, more optimistic course.
Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.
They noted that partisans from both sides – Abu Marzook, deputy chairman of Hamas, and Benjamin Netanyahu – echoed these findings in interviews. They conclude, “Making these sorts of wholly intangible `symbolic’ concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist, simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science says they may be the best way to start cutting the knot.”
(These ideas are outlined further in an article Atran co-authored in Negotiation Journal.)
I would add that this is essentially the approach Pope John Paul II took, particularly in his visit to the Holy Land in 2000: He recognized the sufferings and sacred values of both peoples. For the Palestinians, he did this by visiting a refugee camp and speaking in a moving way on the world stage about the Palestinians’ suffering. For the Israelis, he did this through his emotional visit to Yad Vashem and the conciliatory note he left at the Western Wall.
The pope’s example didn’t take hold; the intifada began months later. Nor do I think the Holy See’s position has influenced the bulk of American Catholics in their view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The study cited here shows that a real peace can never be negotiated unless both sides in the dispute recognize their opponent’s core or sacred values. And it would help if the American supporters of both sides did the same.