The Decade for Peace in Israel-Palestine

Having just returned from a visit to Israel where I spoke at a meeting of government scholars which included several negotiators who had been directly involved in past peace processes, one thing is clear: peace with the Palestinians seems impossible. The message I heard was that the Israeli government is stuck; oriented, incentivized and institutionalized for war, politically hand-cuffed by its own internal party-politics, uninformed about their own history of negotiations with the Palestinians because of this infighting, and clueless about how to proceed on the main issues of contention. It seems that it is not simply that the Netanyahu government won't negotiate for peace, they can't. Peace is not just off the table, there is no table.

This is at a time when unemployment for the 4 million Palestinians living in the territories is at roughly 24 percent (more than 40 percent in Gaza), exports have flat-lined and imports have skyrocketed for 10 years, the ratio of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths since 2000 is 6:1 (close to 10:1 for children), and the military actions and settlements of Israel have called into question the legitimacy of the current government, isolating them increasingly internationally. Yet the barrier wall constructed around the territories has reduced violence against Jews in Israel substantially, leading to a creeping sense of complacency for many Israeli citizens. Yet Israel will soon be exposed to increasing danger from long-range missiles able to hit its large population centers. In other words, the status quo of the conflict and occupation today feels like the only option and is completely unsustainable. That's the bad news.

The good news is that radical change is today unfolding everywhere in the Middle East. Beyond the turmoil of the Arab Spring we are now seeing televised political debates in Egypt (the first ever in the region), potential civil war in neighboring Syria, signs of life in the multiparty talks over Iran's nuclear program, and this week thousands of young protestors again taking the streets in Tel Aviv under the slogan "Returning the state to its citizens."

Why is such tumult in the region good news? Because radical change can be good for peace in areas that have been stuck in intractable conflict for decades.

Experts estimate that about five percent of international conflicts become intractable: highly destructive, enduring and resistant to multiple good-faith attempts at resolution. These conflicts seem to develop a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their own ruin. And although uncommon, they last an average of 36 years and have accounted for 49 percent of international wars since 1816, 76 percent of civil wars since 1946, and evoke disproportionate levels of expense, misery, hopelessness and instability. What is particularly daunting about this 5 percent of protracted conflicts is their substantial resistance to resolution. In these settings, the traditional methods of diplomacy, negotiation and mediation -- and even military victory -- seem to have little impact on the persistence of the conflict. In fact, there is some evidence that these strategies may only make matters worse.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is such a conflict. An immensely complicated hundred-year-old conflict that today operates and is reinforced across a multitude of issues, time periods, stakeholders and lands. It has become what Stephen Cohen, founder of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development describes as "the crucible of multiple conflicts in the region and multiple grievances that feed upon one another and that produce reoccurring eruptions of violence." Unfortunately, every large-scale effort at peacemaking to date -- at Oslo, Wye, Camp David, Taba, Geneva, all twenty-six proposals and counting -- have been overwhelmed by the conflict and seem to have only contributed to peace fatigue.

So it is good news that the status quo is unsustainable.

Fortunately, the resolution of other seemingly intractable conflicts elsewhere in the world offer Israel-Palestine important lessons, particularly in light of the changes currently taking place in the region. In South Africa, Mozambique, Liberia, and Northern Ireland, we witnessed conflicts that were locked in violent cycles for decades, even generations, where many attempts at peacemaking failed, and where, eventually, peace emerged.

What have we learned?

Leaders can capitalize on current regional instability. In studies by Paul Diehl and Gary Goetz of the approximately 850 enduring conflicts that occurred throughout the world between 1816 to 1992, over three-quarters of them were found to have ended within ten years of a major political shock (world wars, civil wars, significant changes in territory and power relations, regime change, independence movements, or transitions to democracy). Events such as those erupting in the Middle East today promote optimal conditions for dramatic realignment of sociopolitical systems.

For example, ten years ago 9/11 shocked the world, and on its heels the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, deposed their leaders, and triggered an unprecedented level of turmoil and instability in the region. Such events, as horrible and costly as they are, provide ideal conditions for repositioning of socio-political systems, even those well beyond the borders of the countries directly affected. However, the effects of such destabilization are often not immediately apparent and do not ensure radical or positive change; it is therefore only a necessary but insufficient condition for peace. Nevertheless, instability does present unique opportunities to steer the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a new direction.

Envision complex networks of causation. Although the sources and responsibility for the conflict is always under dispute, at this point they are almost irrelevant. For over time such conflicts gather new problems and grievances and disputants which combine in complicated ways to increase their intractability. It helps to understand this, even to map out the different parts of the conflict, in order to get a better sense of what is operating. This is particularly important when the polarizing tide of Us vs. Them becomes strong and leads to the oversimplification of the sources of the conflict ('Them!').

Decouple the conflict. Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is embedded in a complex network of independent but related conflicts, change will require a period in which it delinks from other, more distant conflicts. For instance, the Arab-Israeli conflict became less severe as Jordan chose not to take part in the 1973 war and Egypt made peace with Israel.

Work from the bottom up. Shifting focus from top leaders negotiating global ideals and principles (territorial ownership, sovereignty) to community leaders problem-solving achievable, on-the-ground goals can loosen the conflict's stranglehold on the peace process and ignite it from the bottom up. During the round-table negotiations over solidarity in Poland, focusing first on moving the practical aspects of the society forward (functional health care, agriculture, transportation, tourism, etc.) went a long way toward a peaceful transition. Working at a lower level, while temporarily circumventing the global issues of power, control and identity, can help to initiate an altogether new emergent dynamic.

Welcome weak power. Case studies of intractable conflicts like Mozambique in the 1980s-'90s where sustainable resolutions eventually emerged have taught us that forceful interventions by powerful authorities or third-parties rarely help for long. Paradoxically, they have shown that it is often weaker third-parties who employ softer forms of power (are trust-worthy, unthreatening, reliable, and without a strong independent agenda) who often are most effective as catalysts for change.

Support existing islands of agreement. Harvard Law Professor Gabriella Blum has found that during many protracted conflicts, the disputing parties often maintain areas in their relationship where they continue to communicate and cooperate, despite the severity of the conflict. In international affairs this can occur with some forms of trade, civilian exchanges or medical care. Bolstering such islands can not only mitigate tensions and help contain conflict, but also offers some of the most promising sources of constructive change for moving forward toward peace.

Rethink cause and effect. Research has also shown that the changes brought on by destabilizing shocks to systems often do not manifest right away. In fact, with intractable international conflicts, changes can take up to ten years after a major political shock before their effects take hold. Thus, conflicts of this nature require us to rethink our tendency to think in terms of immediate cause-and-effect, and to understand that changes in some complex systems operate in radically different time frames.

Work incrementally to effect radical change. The real work for the advocates of peace, justice and freedom in the region, the Arab world, the U.S. and the international community begins now. This entails essentially two tasks. First, the arduous work of bolstering or establishing a complex array of institutions, mechanisms and social norms -- through grassroots NGOs, schools, government initiatives and international agencies -- which encourage tolerance, cooperation, inclusion and justice. But in parallel each community must begin to actively dismantle the institutions and mechanisms that have for decades fomented inequality, resentment, exclusion and contempt. The effects of this work, like those of political shocks, may take a decade or more to surface. But without them, the status quo of Israel-Palestine will soon detonate.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD is a psychologist on faculty at Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and author of the books: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011) and The Psychological Components of Sustainable Peace (2012).

Cross-posted from Psychology Today.