Not long ago my wife and I attended a concert which featured the music of the folksinger and political activist Pete Seeger. A palpable magic transcended and unified the audience in the room, echoing the words and message of Seeger. During Seeger's career the words on his banjo were, "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender." The challenge we face is that the forces and voices of violence, hate, and division are much better at knowing how to be heard. The song of peace, goodwill, and cooperation must be sung much louder. This is true of many conflicts in the world. It is certainly true of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and particularly now during this recent wave of violence we are witnessing.
Those voices of discord are not afraid to murder. They kill kings (Jordanian King Abdullah I), and presidents (Sadat), and prime ministers (Rabin), and U.S. presidential candidates (Robert F. Kennedy was killed for his support of Israel). And as we know they don't stop there. Civilians, Palestinians and Israelis are their favorite murdered targets. Those killings not only perpetuate the conflict, but they have another result; they intimidate those who favor the two state solution. The slow evaporation of support for that resolution of the conflict shows the power of that force. More and more we see civil society intimidated and attacked in this conflict.
Violence is not the only tactic used. Palestinians deny the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Temple Mount, while at the same time Israelis dismiss Palestinian claims to the land. Both actions threaten and take away the identity and dignity of Israelis and Palestinians. The response of each is to feel vulnerable as core identities are perceived to be imperiled and jeopardized. In such a state there is a circling of the wagons with no sense there is anyone reasonable on the other side to talk with.
Related, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have become masters of sleight of hand diplomacy. On the one hand they both say they are for a two-state solution. But at the same time, with the other hand, their actions and words create the conditions so the other side feels they have no real partner for peace. The Prime Minister's policies of continued building on the West Bank, combined with the daily humiliating and frustrating encounters Palestinians are forced to put up with in a life under occupation, and deadly force the IDF uses in too many encounters with Palestinians, sends a clear message to Palestinians that the Prime Minister's words in support of a two-state solution are meaningless. President Abbas continued inflaming passions around the Temple Mount without clearly acknowledging Jewish claims, combined with a celebration of "martyrs" and payments to their families, as well as an endless culture of hate and incitement within Palestinian institutions, such as the claim by Abbas that a Palestinian teenager had been executed by the Israelis only to be seen alive in an Israeli hospital, is seen by Israelis as a showing of the true colors of Abbas.
The Bible begins with God creating the world by words. It conveys the extremely important message that words create worlds, realities, and conditions. That lesson has been lost by both sides and the violence we see today is a direct result of the abuse of the power of words.
The longer this conflict goes on it becomes easier for radical elements to become strengthened and increase in numbers, while at the same time it allows for a spiral downward drawing the two sides further apart. The present violence is but another reminder that the status quo can not hold, and greater violence and loss of life will become the only path both sides will be condemned to. In its own way a closed loop of hate, lies, and violence has been created that is a self-fulfilling prophecy to nowhere. Such a dynamic allows both sides to convince themselves that they are correct and justified in their actions. A black and white approach closes off all other possibilities.
With those glasses on Netanyahu sees all Palestinians as supporting the destruction of the State of Israel. With such limited vision he refuses to differentiate between Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Abbas, stone throwers, peaceful demonstrators, everyday Palestinians, and Palestinians who work with Israeli-Palestinian People2People organizations. Yes, there are Palestinians who want to see Israel annihilated. For many Palestinians they are frustrated and angry at the stifling occupation that appears to have no end in sight. Netanyahu is unable to see that for the vast majority of Palestinians they simply want the occupation to end, just like Jews wanted the Greek and Roman occupations to end two thousand plus years ago; occupations Jews violently fought against and that are celebrated to this day. The longer there is no political solution both sides will birth greater violent radicalization. Too often we are told that this conflict needs to be left to the younger generation to solve it. The problem with that assumption is that we know there is less and less buy in by younger Palestinians and Israelis. Their hearts have been hardened by only knowing conflict with the other. Most of the present violence is perpetrated by individuals in their twenties and teens.
The present situation reads like "Knots" by R.D. Laing:
the situation on the ground needs to improve violence is caused because the situation on the ground has not improved the situation on the ground will not improve until the violence ends calls to end the violence will not work until the situation on the ground improves the situation on the ground needs to improve
The second half of this essay will explore an approach to breaking out of this cycle.
(a variation of this essay appeared International Policy Digest, October 29, 2015)