Root Causes Behind the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For the past twenty five years, Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University's School of Global Affairs where he has been teaching courses on the Middle East and negotiations for 18 years. He is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle Eastern Studies Project Director at the World Policy Institute. Dr. Ben-Meir hosts "Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir," a series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers around the world. He also regularly holds briefings at the US State Department for international visitors. Dr. Ben-Meir writes frequently and has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites including the Middle East Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, American Chronicle, the Week, the Political Quarterly, Israel Policy Forum, Gulf Times, the Peninsula, The Jerusalem Post, and the Huffington Post. He also makes regular television and radio appearances, and has been featured on networks such as CNN, FOX, PBS, ABC, al Jazeera (English and Arabic), and NPR. He has authored six books related to Middle East policy and is currently working on a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. He is fluent in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. 18.07.2011

On the surface, the current stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems illogical. After all, each side knows, with the exception of the Netanyahu government, that the basic framework of a negotiated settlement: a two-state solution based on the 1967 border with land swaps that keep the major settlement blocs inside Israel proper. Jerusalem would remain a united capital of two-states, and the vast majorities of Palestinian refugees would be compensated and remain in their countries of residence or resettle in the newly created state of Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

These fundamental factors, coupled with appropriate security guarantees for Israel, represent what has been on the table at the conclusion of numerous rounds of negotiations in the past decades, with each round coming closer to finalizing the deal, yet failing to do so. But why? And why the deep reluctance now by either side to return to talks if the foundations are so clear? Because before agreeing on suitable arrangements, both sides must put to rest the deeply embedded and conflicting psychological dimensions, religious convictions, and nationalist narratives of each side. These factors must be recognized, understood and addressed if a genuine end to the conflict is ever to be reached.

The Psychological dimension

Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the scars each side carries from a traumatic past. The Jewish experience throughout the Diaspora was one filled with discrimination, persecution and expulsion, culminating in the Holocaust, during which one nation sought to extinguish a defenseless Jewish people. The trauma of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis is unmatched in size and scope. Without question, the Jews have carried the scars of this past with them to Palestine. Moreover, many Jews were prevented from avoiding death camps by immigrating to Palestine, which added another layer of horrifying experience for the Jewish people. With this past, once the State of Israel was established it was seen not only as the fulfillment of both the secular Zionist mission, but also as a biblical fulfillment of the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, their last refuge that must be guarded with absolute zeal.

Palestinians have never fully appreciated the psychological implications of this historical experience. Instead of understanding the Israeli mindset that was formed by this horrific experience and the Jews' connection to the land, the Palestinians have either denied the Holocaust altogether, or bemoaned that if it did happen, why should they, the Palestinians, pay the price? For the Palestinians, the experience of the Nakba, precipitated by the 1948 war was indeed 'catastrophic.' From their view, they were living in their own land - albeit under Ottoman and then British rule - for centuries. During the 1948 war, many were either forced out of their homes by Israelis or encouraged to leave by their Arab brethren in the context of the war, and found themselves as refugees - an experience that has lasted decades. Israelis have never fully understood the significance of this traumatic experience, nor how it has served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust.

Israelis often argue that since Jews left their homes across the Arab Middle East to settle in Israel, the Palestinian refugees must be considered as a de-facto swap between the Palestinians and Jewish refugees. This view not only dismisses the historic trauma experienced by Palestinians but also disregards their national aspirations to establish a homeland of their own. It is that psychological fixation, among other factors, that prevented either side from coming to grips with inevitability of coexistence.

Lack of Trust

The trauma experienced by both sides prior to, and as a result of, the founding of Israel has been reinforced by wars and misdeeds by each side that has fostered a deeply embedded culture of mistrust between the two peoples. The Arab states' refusal to accept the 1947 United Nations' partition plan was the first such message to Israelis that the Arabs were not interested in peace. The wars, identified by the years they took place, 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, have only strengthened the Israeli conviction that Arabs seek only the destruction of, rather than peace with, the State of Israel. The Arab League meeting in Khartoum in 1967 codified this view, declaring the infamous three no's: "no to negotiations, no to recognition, no to peace." Finally with the launch of the Oslo peace process in 1993, Israelis and Palestinian began to speak with one another in an attempt to find a lasting end to their conflict; but with the trauma of conflict underlying their discussions, and the utter lack of trust, neither side believed the words of the other. From the Israeli view, they negotiated as Hamas and other extremist Palestinian groups gained strength and committed a savage campaign of suicide bombings across Israel, only to be further intensified by the Second Intifada upon the collapse of the Oslo talks.

The Israeli view that the Palestinians do not really want peace gained further currency following Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Instead of using the evacuated territories as an opening for improved relations, they became a staging ground for launching rockets on Israeli cities. Meanwhile, from the Palestinians' perspective, they negotiated as Israeli settlement construction grew exponentially in the West Bank, in a rapid land grab that the Palestinians imagined for a state of their own. The Palestinians insist that Israel could not possibly negotiate in good faith as long as it continued to deepen the roots of occupation while undermining any real prospect for establishing their own state.

In truth, both sides are right to feel cheated. But it is no longer a question of right or wrong. The perception by each side that the other is not serious must be overcome if peace is to be achieved. However, the leadership on both sides has not made any real effort to correct these perceptions, deciding instead to stroke the nationalist fervor and angst against the other, rather than moving forward with a peace agreement in good-faith.

Religious Conviction

The Arab-Israeli conflict is typically viewed as a political and territorial conflict, yet the religious component fuels the conflict and makes it extremely difficult to resolve. The Israeli narrative is one that is based on the biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers. As Prime Minister Netanyahu implored Congress in his May 24 address, "This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history can deny the four thousand year old bond, between the Jewish people and the Jewish land." For many Israelis it is extremely painful to relinquish control of the West Bank, known as the ancient biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, and it is inconceivable to surrender the Wailing Wall and have Jerusalem under the jurisdiction of anyone else.

Similarly, no Arab leader would compromise on Jerusalem because of the religious convictions tied to the third holiest shrines of Islam in Jerusalem, the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Haram al-Sharif. Moreover, many Muslims scholars believe that Muhammad made his Journey from Mecca to the Al Aqsa mosque (literally, 'furthest mosque') in Jerusalem before he ascended to heaven. Although the Al Aqsa mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Surah 17:1 says that Mohammad visited the site where Masjid Al Aqsa was to be built. This belief is certainly not limited to the Palestinians but shared by all Muslims, further complicating any solution to the future of Jerusalem.

Defiance of Reality

Although many people on both sides realize that coexistence is inevitable, there are still very strong voices among Israelis and the Palestinians who simply don't accept it. There are Israelis who deny that the Palestinians are a nation with national aspirations, believing that they can be given independence in municipalities but remain perpetually under the jurisdiction and control of the Israeli authorities. Just as there are Israelis who deny the existence of a Palestinian people, there are Palestinians who deny that Israelis constitute a people worthy of a nation, let alone one that should settle in the land they seek for their own.

Too often, leadership on both sides has sought to exploit these nationalistic denials for their own political and ideological gains, at the expense of understanding the narrative of the other side. For example, for the Israeli side, this has meant a denial of the dilemma of Palestinian refugees and on the Palestinian side, a denial of Israel's genuine security concerns. As a result, the public discourse has advanced the notion that the other side has no genuine claims, and that one day they can be defeated with hardened, resolute positions, and therefore there is no compelling rationale to compromise to find a formula for co-existence. This blind refusal of reality by influential voices on both sides strengthens those on the fringes seeking to delay a solution. The quintessential example of the denial of the need to coexist is the development of unilateralism as a policy of choice. The Israelis continued settlements expansion and the Palestinians drive to seek UN recognition of their own state suggest a bold attempt to shape their respective national future as if it were possible to do so independent of the other side.


By insisting on far-fetched formulas, each side is creating a state of self-entrapment by imprisoning themselves in positions that are not sustainable-locking themselves into a posture without a face-saving way out. Israelis and Palestinians are addicted to missing opportunities and adopting harmful positions. To illustrate the self-entrapment consider the following: Israelis insist that the Palestinians should have no jurisdiction over any part of Jerusalem and that they must recognize Israel "as a Jewish state." Palestinians continue to perpetuate the fantasy that refugees will one day return to Israel en masse, thereby destroying Israel's Jewish character. As long as these positions, however untenable they may be, continue to dominate public discourse, they not only impede any serious dialogue or discussion but paint Israeli and Palestinian leadership into a corner with increasingly diminishing prospect of finding a dignified way out.

Overcoming these fundamental obstacles to a two-state agreement requires more than negotiations between political leaders. Last month, the French initiative to host peace talks failed, when parties could not agree even to attend. Many such conferences in the past have come and gone without introducing any lasting changes for the better in the dynamic of the conflict. So why have another? However, the Europeans are uniquely suited to host conferences to address the specific impediments to peace by bringing together noted and most respected religious leaders, historians and NGO's that engage in separate talks about each of these issues without outside political pressure as long as they all participants believe in the inevitability of coexistence. Airing these issues and reaching a better understanding could have tremendous impact on public opinion on both sides and provide the political leadership with the necessary public support and the political cover they need to accommodate each other. Understanding and appreciating one and other's position and mindset and reaching a consensus governed by the reality on the ground will be a game changer.

For this reason, as a case in point, any negotiations about the future of the city of Jerusalem require first an in-depth dialogue between respected and independent Jewish and Muslim religious scholars. It is they who must first reach a mutual understanding about the religious connections to the land, its impact on the conflict and how the gaps between the two religious narratives can be bridged to preserve the peace and sanctity of Jerusalem in light of the inevitability of coexistence. In a different setting, notable historians from both sides can meet and serve to advance understanding among both peoples of the traumatic history of each side and how the narratives have been shaped in the past and might be shaped in the future to advance co-existence. In a similar vein other conferences could deal with the problem of a lack of trust, the continuing self-entrapment and the denial of the realities on the ground. Finally, Non-governmental organizations can help to disseminate these finding across the broader public without the political baggage of the respective political leadership. The European community would be ideal to host such conferences of dialogue because they do not come with the same religious biases of nations like the United States, where there is a strong base of support for Israel among evangelicals or Turkey, with its natural tendency to support its Muslim brethren.

Doing so would also acknowledge the helpful role that Europe and the broader international community can play in resolving, rather than stoking the conflict. Only with such a broader, deeper dialogue, and the shared pursuit of understanding of the issues on the psychological, historical, religious and emotional levels, can the roots of the conflict be addressed and lead to substantive negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

*A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on July 8th, 2011 and is available online here:

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