Given this difference between understanding and excusing, it's hard to know what to do with efforts to have us understand the "psychological obstacles" that supposedly prevent Israelis from making peace. A good example of this effort is found in a reprinted essay by Carlo Strenger, an Israeli psychologist and public intellectual who is a strong opponent of the Occupation. It appears in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and is entitled "Psychological Obstacles to Peace in Israel."
Though Strenger is an Israeli peace activist, his essay is really an effort to move the reader to take more seriously -- to better understand -- Israeli feelings of "existential" fear when it comes to prospects for peace with the Palestinians. Such understanding will, allegedly, bring us to "acknowledge that moving toward peace entails genuine security risks [for Israeli Jews], and to address these risks unflinchingly." For Strenger, this is the sine qua non for peace.
(1) The concept of "loss-aversion"--the assertion that people "are far more guided by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain." Strenger tells us that average Israelis are afraid to risk the loss of territorial "assets," which they identify with both national security and religious tradition, for the gains that might come with peace. It is an alleged natural bias for the status quo. Strenger goes on to say that the Palestinians are responsible for this Israeli fear of peace due to their violence during the second Intifada and the rocket attacks from Gaza. That Israel itself created the historical conditions for these Palestinian acts of resistance is not considered by Strenger.
There are problems with the loss-aversion thesis. One is that individual assessments of the loss/gain risk are subjective. In other words, in the case of Israeli fears, there have been decades of government propaganda downplaying prospects for peace and Palestinian as well as Arab efforts at compromise -- for instance, the outright lie that the Israelis have no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side. This has been paralleled by a continuous playing up of the alleged security risks of withdrawal from occupied territories. The result is a psychological context that magnifies a national aversion to the loss of security that may come from peace. Put another way, Israeli leaders have produced an artificial political and psychological environment that identifies national security with the avoidance of peace. All Israeli governments have played this propaganda game because all of them have been and still are more interested in land than peace.
(2) Strenger's second psychological obstacle is Israel's "inability to let go of Zionism as a revolutionary movement." The surprising point here is that he confines "the revolutionary movement" aspect of Zionism to the post-1967 war period. Thus, he tells us "the history of Israel's occupation and gradual colonization of the West Bank cannot be understood without the religious-Zionist movement that emerged from the 1967 war." However, just like the notion of loss aversion, this assertion is misleading. Limiting Zionism's aggressive expansion, and its accompanying notion of territorial destiny, only to fanatic settlers is just wrong. It was secular Labor Party leaders and military officers who started the Occupation after the 1967 war, and they were (and many probably still are) as reluctant to let go of that territory as any wild-eyed Israeli religious fundamentalist.
(3) Finally, the third psychological obstacle put forth by Strenger is "a need to justify the occupation." Didn't we just go through this with loss aversion? Yes. But he wants us to understand that justifying the Occupation also means justifying the guilt that he knows must go along with it. He explains, "almost every Israeli in the last 47 years has done military service in the territories. Almost all of them have had to do things [italics added] that go against human decency and morality -- often not for the sake of Israel's security at large, but to protect some isolated outpost of settlers." Giving up the territories for peace would be like an admission that it was all for naught, and according to Strenger, "this idea is too difficult to bear, and the regret would be unendurable." This need for denial then underpins the need to see the Occupation as "necessary for Israel's survival."
While phrases like "too difficult to bear" and "the regret would be unbearable" are exaggerations, I can understand this argument. It is the same as the argument that the Vietnam War was fought to keep the United States free. Many Americans still cling to this myth. As Strenger notes, it makes both sacrifices and sins appear justified. Yet, in the long run, not facing one's guilt only poisons both individual and national lives. We can already see this happening within Israeli society.
There are other problems with Strenger's understanding of Israeli psychological obstacles. He approaches them in a one-dimensional fashion, as if there is not another relevant party to these traumas. Yet Israeli fears about peace are indelibly tied to the Palestinian demand for justice. Indeed, the more we "understand" Israeli fears and accommodate them, the more we are forced to ignore the Palestinians' psychological and material need for justice. And, justice for the Palestinians is yet another sine qua non for peace.
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