Feb 10th 2012

The Psychological Dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

This is the first of 10 articles that will address how the psychological dimension of Israeli-Palestinian conflict has and continues to impact every conflicting issue between the two sides and what can be done to mitigate these psychological impediments to reach an agreement based on a two state solution.

On the surface, the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems illogical and unsettling. After all, each side accepts the inevitability of coexistence and presumably understands the general parameters of a negotiated peace agreement: a two-state solution based on the 1967 border with land swaps that keep the major settlement blocks under Israel’s sovereignty, Jerusalem would remain a united capital of two-states, and the vast majority of Palestinian refugees would be compensated and remain in their countries of residence or resettle in the newly-created Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These fundamental Imperatives, 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 an agreement, yet ultimately failing to do so. The question is: why?

The answer lies far beyond the physical concessions on the ground and is deeply embedded in the psychological dimensions of the conflict, which impact every conflicting issue between the two parties. It is the mindset, nurtured over more than nine decades, that allows the individuals and the groups, Israelis and Palestinians alike, to perceive and interpret the nature of the discord between them in a biased and selective way. In turn, this stifles and inhibits any new information that could shed new light on the situation and help advance the peace process. In principle, such a mindset prevents either side from entertaining new ideas that might lead to compromises for a peaceful solution. Thus, to mitigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must first carefully look into the various elements that inform the psychological dimensions of the conflict and discuss how they may impact the relationship between the two sides and what it would take to alleviate these psychological impediments as prerequisites to finding a solution to the conflict.

Historical Experiences

Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the scars that each side carries from traumatic pasts. The Jewish experience throughout the Diaspora was one filled with discrimination, persecution, anti-Semitism 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. Moreover, many Jews were prevented from avoiding death camps by immigrating to Palestine, which added yet another layer to the horrific experiences of the Jewish people. Without question, the Jews have carried the scars of this past with them to Palestine and still hold to the view that it can happen again unless they remain relentless in protecting themselves at any cost. With this past in mind, once the State of Israel was established, it was seen not only as the last refuge to provide protection for the Jewish people but also the realization of the secular Zionist mission and the biblical fulfillment of the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland that had to be guarded with absolute and unwavering zeal.

It is this sense of victimization and injustice that has served to nurture the allegiance that each Israeli feels towards the state and to each other with a naturally-engendered, negative emotional sentiment towards the enemy. From the Israeli perspective, the establishment of Israel on the heels of the Holocaust was seen (and continues to be viewed) as a last chance to create a refuge and remain on guard to protect the Jews’ welfare and wellbeing, wherever they may live and at whatever cost. Moreover, this sense of being victimized, which results from an intentional infliction of harm which is viewed as unjust and utterly immoral, has led to a lack of empathy towards the enemy and further manifested itself through a shirking of Israeli responsibility, for example, regarding the Palestinian refugee problem while promoting self-righteousness. Together these phenomena tend to endure for a very long period of time, particularly when it is accompanied by extensive violence and growing concerns over security.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have never really appreciated the psychological implications of the Jews’ 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, they should not be forced to pay the price.

For the Palestinians, the experience of the Nakba, precipitated by the 1948 war, was indeed no less catastrophic.  From their view, they were living in their own land, albeit under Ottoman rule for centuries and then under British rule. 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 for decades and which they continue to endure to this day. This traumatic experience has served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust, the two tragic events, however, unparalleled in scope by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian refugee problem to their advantage did not change the reality on the ground nor did it alter the Palestinians’ sentiment and feelings about their plight.

What has further aggravated the Palestinian refugees are the subsequent and frequent violent encounters between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war. This was a war which not only created another wave of refugees but set the stage for bloody confrontation during which many thousands lost their lives on both sides. Moreover, the Israeli settlement project provided a daily reminder of the Palestinian inaptitude while demonstrating the futility of their efforts to stem the Israeli encroachment on their territory, especially in the West Bank. The repeated humiliation of the Palestinians further deepened their resolve to oppose the Israelis at whatever cost, but all to no avail, which served to further deepen their resentment, hatred and animosity.

Israelis have never fully understood the significance of what the Palestinians have been experiencing, how this has impacted their psychological dispositions, and why they have shown no desire to reconcile their differences with Israel. Israelis often argue that since nearly 800,000 Jews left their homes across the Arab Middle East and North Africa and largely settled in Israel, the Palestinian refugees must be considered a de-facto swap with the Jewish refugees. This view not only dismisses the historic trauma experienced by the Palestinians but also disregards their national aspirations to establish a homeland of their own. It is that psychological fixation reinforced by public narratives and education in schools, among other factors, that has prevented either side from coming to grips with the inevitability of peaceful coexistence.

Political Ideology

For most Israelis, the meanings and the implications of the occupation took a dramatic turn only a few months following the 1967 war. Whereas initially Israel offered to relinquish the territories with the exception of East Jerusalem in exchange for peace, the Arab states’ refusal changed the Israelis view dramatically from viewing the land as occupied to one that was liberated. As a result, the Palestinians living on the land have been seen as an impediment to the fulfillment of those who embraced this nationalistic, ideological orientation. From their perspective, the Jews’ cultural heritage is intertwined with the land and Jews have a historical right to the land that is not subject to mitigation. As a result, these factions opposed any compromise for ideological reasons while intensifying the sense of vulnerability from a security perspective in order to undermine any efforts to reach a cooperative agreement. Such ideologues often assume an arrogant approach while disregarding legitimate norms of conduct and the rules of law as they have come to see the occupation as a legitimate repossession of the Jews’ historic land.  

In addition to three religious parties, there is plethora of political parties in Israel, which cover the whole spectrum from extreme left to the extreme right, who hold different ideological positions in connection with the territories. Some, such as Likud, seek to hold onto the entirety of what they call, “the land of Israel.” Others, like Labor and Kadima, are willing to compromise territorially because of their concerns over the loss of Jewish dominance resulting from annexation or the loss of the democratic nature of the state due to shifting demographics. Other left-of-center parties such as Meretz insist that the occupation is a violation of universal moral values and seek an end to it, provided Israel can ensure its national security. And there are the religious parties who, like their secular counterparts, differ in their approach regarding the disposition of the territories. However, regardless of their ideological or religious orientations, they have all supported (in various degrees) the settlement enterprise and insist on retaining part of the West Bank, ranging between five to forty percent, to accommodate their ideological, national security or religious needs.

The Palestinians have never understood the depth and the meaning of the historical connection between the Jews and what they consider their ancient homeland. This is a connection that has lived in the mind and soul of most Jews throughout the millennium. The Palestinians have rejected Israel as a matter of principle regardless of the eventual disposition of the West Bank and Gaza, something that has become deeply ingrained in the Israeli mindset particularly because the Palestinians have openly and repeatedly stated that position.

From the Palestinian perspective, Palestine is the only land they have known. It is their ancestral land, which they have occupied for centuries. Although they recognize that a small Jewish community has always lived in Palestine and even though the land was ruled by the Ottoman and then fell under British mandate, they have never psychologically or emotionally conceded their right to Palestine as they view it as Arab matrimony. The War of 1948, which followed the creation of the state of Israel and precipitated the first wave of Palestinian refugees, further deepened their resolve which led to the creation of more than a dozen militant- resistance groups forsworn to bring an end to the Jewish enterprise in Palestine through one form or another.
Sixty-four years into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and following half a dozen wars and hundreds of terrorist attacks and Israeli retaliations, very little has changed psychologically. There are still numerous resistance movements such as Hamas that oppose Israel’s existence and continue to adhere to the ideological ethos of Palestinian control over all of mandated Palestine. Following the 1993 Oslo accords, however, a growing majority of Palestinians began to realize that they must find a way to co-exist with Israel, which subsequently became the official policy of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. The PA’s rival, Hamas, which controls Gaza, continues to struggle to find a way to reconcile with the reality of Israel. Yet, despite the growing pragmatic view, the psychological disposition of the Palestinians remains locked in place and a significant constituency on both sides continues to oppose any effort to reconcile their historical perspectives.  

Religious Belief and Conviction

The Arab-Israeli conflict is typically viewed as a political and territorial conflict, yet the religious component has created a certain mindset that further complicates 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 of Congress in his May 24th 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. This has, in fact, created intergroup factions such as the settlement movement that strongly supports militant actions, rejects compromises and often exerts disproportionate pressure on the government to not make any compromises. As a result, with the expansion of the settlements, this particular and most powerful psychological disposition became even further embedded in the Israeli psyche and the growing, if not decisive, power of the problematic settlement movement has made it ever so more difficult to contemplate a return to the 1967 borders even with some land swap.  As recent internal Israeli conflicts between Israeli soldiers and settlers attest to, nothing will stop the zealot settlers as long as they believe that they are pursuing God’s mission and that the Almighty is testing their resolve, tenacity and willingness to sacrifice themselves before He grants them once again the Promised Land.

Similarly, no Arab leader will 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 Muslim 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. Like their Israeli counterparts, the Palestinians too have shown absolutely no flexibility in this regard. It is this mindset, cultivated over many centuries but further reinforced since the creation of Israel that has and will continue to hinder finding a solution that can satisfy both the psychological and emotional needs of both sides.

National Security

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 which has led many Israelis to believe that the entire world is against them and adopt a powerful and intractable siege mentality.
The Arab League meeting in Khartoum in 1967 codified this view and further reinforced that perception through 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 Palestinians 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 point of 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 the launching of 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 had 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 prospects for establishing their own state. The Palestinian’s perception of a continued Israeli threat and the lingering fear of Israel’s ill intentions further deepened their sense of insecurity which justified their use of force against the source of the threat. Moreover, whereas the Israelis linked the continuation of the occupation to national security, the Palestinians’ heightened intergroup solidarity against the occupation wanted to demonstrate that the occupation must become the source of insecurity for Israel. To be sure, Israel’s deep sense of insecurity was similarly experienced by the Palestinians to no lesser a degree, which made them resort to violence to ensure their own safety.

Here too, events and circumstances have led both sides to develop a mindset based on fear and uncertainty, forcing them to dig in their heels. This sense of heightened insecurity was further aggravated by ideological Israeli and Palestinian leaders that made little or no effort to correct these perceptions, deciding instead to stoke nationalist fervor and angst against the “Other”.

Delegitimization of Each Other

Although many people on both sides realize that coexistence is inevitable, there are still very strong voices among the 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. And 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. As a result, this further enhances the will to sustain the occupation by the Israelis and emboldens resistance to the occupation by the Palestinians.

Too often, the 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 Israelis 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 will be defeated with hardened, resolute positions. Therefore there is no compelling rationale to compromise in order 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 settlement expansion and the Palestinians’ drive to seek UN recognition of their own state suggests a bold attempt to shape their respective national futures as if it were possible to do so, independent of the other side.

To be sure, the conscious effort to delegitimize each other not only causes self-harm and harm to the other side but it also permits and justifies moral infractions against each other. It helps sustain the conflict, minimize the importance of any concession made by either side and inadvertently leads to renewed violence.


By insisting on far-fetched formulas, both sides are creating states of self-entrapment by imprisoning themselves in positions that are not sustainable and are locking themselves into  postures without admirable ways out.  To illustrate this 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, continue to dominate public discourse, they not only impede any serious dialogue or discussion but also paint the Israeli and Palestinian leadership into a corner with increasingly diminishing prospects of finding a dignified way out.

Overcoming these fundamental obstacles to a two-state agreement requires more than negotiations between political leaders.  What is needed is to bring together noted and most-respected religious leaders, historians and NGO’s that engage in separate talks about each of the conflicting issues between Israelis and Palestinians without outside political pressure as long as all participants believe in the inevitability of coexistence. Airing these issues and reaching a better understanding could have a 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 each other’s position and mindset, and reaching a consensus governed by the reality on the ground, will be a game-changer. 

Only with such a broader, deeper dialogue, and the shared pursuit of understanding the issues on the psychological, historical, religious and emotional levels, can the roots of the conflict be addressed and substantive negotiations begin to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the following seven articles I will discuss how the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to impact the conflicting issues between the two sides and what can be done to address the imperatives of the conflict and make the right choices. Next: Borders and Israel’s national security. 

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