During President Obama’s recent trip to Israel, he spoke of the urgent need to renew peace talks. But in his vision of how to arrive at these talks, he seems to have disregarded the common sense principle that peace is made between enemies.
The principle appears to be embraced in the course of ordinary affairs. For example, when an estranged couple stands before a lawyer prepared to sign divorce papers, they are generally not told: “now, before signing, please turn one to the other and acknowledge that your spouse’s interpretation of the failure of this marriage is valid, and admit that the responsibility for said failure is your own.”
And yet when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, mutual recognition and reconciliation are often considered prerequisites to peacemaking. And this in a century-old blood-soaked conflict whose parties were never pledged to each other in the first place, and one that has been poisoned by so many layers of mistrust they lie like ancient cities built one upon the ruins of another.
All sides of the political divide have disregarded the notion that peace is made between enemies. The peace camp has run hundreds of people-to-people projects intended to help humanize enemies, which have had a profound impact on individuals. But their basic premise has been flawed.
You can take people to a safe haven far from the conflict and introduce humanity to their interaction; but when they return to the conflict zone they are no better equipped to address the core issues. Their enhanced understanding of the ‘other’ often makes them objects of suspicion within their own society, and their inability or unwillingness to reach out to the more hard-line among their own people leaves them with little influence.
Despite their good intentions, such dialogue projects do not offer those involved what they need most: the knowledge or skills to address each other as adversaries, within the context of the conflict itself; and the ability to develop concrete strategies in pursuit of their own interests.
The rightist/hard-line agenda on both sides has been equally flawed, with mutual calls for parties to recognize the moral legitimacy of their enemy’s narrative: “Put us on your map, even as we erase you from ours; write us into your history, while we purge you from ours; tell your children that our ties to the land run deeper than yours, while we declare your ties to be concocted; proclaim our self-determination as a supreme good, and admit that yours is inconsequential. Then we’ll talk.”
In reality, such premature recognition is neither possible nor necessary. Demanding that your enemies reverse their view of history or deny the justice of their own cause is the best way to ensure that your own people will never achieve their goals.