I had a modest revelation about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as I left the White House after interviewing National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
It may be time to send home the diplomats and bring in the therapists.
My June 6 interview with Rice, arranged at her office’s request, was not bursting with news, but it was significant, the first time she sat down one-on-one with a member of the Jewish media in her current West Wing office, just a corridor away from the oval one.
Rice is a fiercely smart and seasoned diplomat, precise in her language and formal in her presentation. She wasn’t talking to me to make nice. While there were no ground rules for this interview, clearly she wanted to emphasize her position that — despite the latest attempts to internationalize the process — a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can come only through direct negotiations with the two parties.
Just days earlier, French President Francois Hollande had gathered 26 represenatives from Europe and Arab nations, plus Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in what turned out to be more of a photo op than a bold show of international pressure to restart negotiations. Rice insisted that Kerry’s presence in Paris was a pre-emptive move to ensure “that this very delicate issue” is handled effectively, not as an endorsement of a new global thrust.
After swatting back the Paris summit, Rice also seemed to tap down rumors that the Obama administration would push for resolution from the U.N. Security Council to set nonbinding parameters for a resolution. I say “seemed” because she didn’t rule it out, and given the way I phrased my question, she could have. Instead she said it would be “foolish” to rule out a hypothetical. But she followed that by saying — and by now you all know the words by heart — the only way to resolve this conflict is face-to-face talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
So the United States — still Israel’s best friend and a generous buddy to the Palestinians, too — is telling the two sides to talk. So are the Europeans, the Arab League and the U.N. Not just talk eventually. Talk now.
Yet the Israelis and the Palestinians are impervious to these entreaties. From deep inside the local politics, they don’t see the same reality these outsiders see. For a complex bevy of political, economic and nationalistic reasons, they have convinced themselves that the status quo is sustainable, all evidence to the contrary.
That’s when I realized, leaving the iconic seat of world power on a bright June afternoon, that there is something deeply psychological happening here, a profound refusal to see the world as others see it, and to acknowledge the lasting harm that nearly a half-century of occupation is doing to both peoples.
It’s painful to watch a nation I love rule a people who are suffering, and not to know how to persuade either of them to move beyond their state of entwined paralysis. The contours of a diplomatic solution have been known for years. What the United States, the Europeans and other advocates have not found is the effective psychological tool to ignite action.
This is most true for the Israelis and especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly found excuses to maintain and strengthen the occupation while denying the way it is diminishing Israel’s moral standing in the world and corroding the soul of its own people.
Denial, the sociologist Eva Illouz wrote in Haaretz last year, “is a choice to actively ignore the truth in front of our eyes.” Damningly, she argued that a “large proportion of the Israeli population is increasingly numb and indifferent to the humanitarian disaster that plagues Palestinians. These Israelis are in the same position as the woman who sees her husband sexually abusing his daughter and yet fails to register it.”
The movement to boycott and isolate Israel may eventually prod Netanyahu into action, but the backlash against it is proving to be a useful propaganda tool for his government, and besides, as Bloomberg News recently pointed out, so far it hasn’t hurt the Israeli economy one whit.
The Palestinians are in a much weaker position as the people without a state, an army or a cohesive future, but they do have some agency here, and they, too, are in denial about the status quo. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas still may be, as many Israeli politicians have said, the best partner for peace, but his ineffective rule has led to such widespread disillusionment with his never-ending claim on leadership that two-thirds of his public thinks he should resign.
Abbas has walked away from negotiations, too, and allowed radicals to commit horrific acts of terror that are corroding the Palestinian soul as dangerously as the occupation is debasing the Israelis.
And both men are in denial to their respective publics about the sacrifices necessary for a lasting compromise.
But here you have Rice reminding that the “situation on the ground is tense. You have violence at a heightened level. You have incitement. You have intensified settlement activity and home demolitions. You have actions taken that are not conducive to a two-state solution.”
She could not have been clearer, but Israeli and Palestinian leaders do not seem to see what she and so many others see. Fear of the future has led to the paralysis of the present. If the most skilled diplomats in the world can’t get the two sides together, then maybe those who best understand and treat the psychosis of denial should step in.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.