Considered the key personality in the history of peace talks in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Anwar Al-Sadat was the figure of a turning point in negotiations during the Camp David Accords in 1977. His speech stated that “suspicion, … rejection, … fear and hallucination” (Sadat, 1977) were responsible for the lack of progress achieved in the conflict as up until this point, efforts to resolve the conflict had been short-lived. Rejection of proposed UN resolutions 181, 194 and 242 by either Arab States or Israel had led to a political stalemate that at its peak engendered intifadas and terrorist attacks which have continued to the present day where the chance of a definitive end to the conflict seems impossible. Sadat himself had stated that the ‘psychological barriers’ of this conflict had been the biggest hindrance to finding an appropriate solution, explaining that the stubborn mentality from either party was the cause of the conflict’s continuation. In theory, overcoming these psychological barriers means Israel would have to abandon its belief in reclaiming their rightful land settled on by Palestinians – perhaps more importantly, the Arab States would need to recognise the state of Israel. Although it is clear that nationalism and religion are key themes driving this conflict, elements that come under Sadat’s ‘psychological barrier’ involve historiography, domestic politics and mistrust of actors and have been arguably more effective in derailing efforts in peace processes.
I would argue that one of the key elements preventing peace in this conflict is the pitching of the conflicting Palestinian nationalist and Zionist identities against each other. Both identities refer to a collective people, and as they effectively do contrast themselves, they demonstrate the inability to coexist. This is pertinent as one of Sadat’s ‘psychological barriers’ because it conveys an inability for mentality change thus the impedance of conflict resolution. Israeli identity consists of the “return to Zion” (Caplan, p.93, 2009), where European Jews believed themselves to be reclaiming land that they had been biblically promised. This demonstrates itself as an obstacle to peace where generous allocations of land had been rewarded to “returning” (Caplan, p.94, 2009) Israeli inhabitants. Any concession to Palestine would be deemed as out of their own generosity and thus Israel would refuse large territory reductions, particularly if they include Jerusalem or the West Bank. This is evident in initial UN plans in Resolution 181 for the Partition of Palestine, where concessions were mainly made on the side of Palestine where 78% of Palestinian land had been reduced and was only left with 22% of the original territory, which was used for the flux of immigrants “who came to Israel in the … wave of immigration from the … Soviet Union” (Litwin, p.46, 1997); this again demonstrates how the UN resolution has not challenged the Israeli mentality, a stance that’s led to the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948. In this way, it creates more obstacles to peace because it both provokes this violent reaction from the Arab States while reinforcing the inability for compromise from the Israelis.
Psychological barriers also come in the form of lack of recognition in terms of the collective identities of Palestinian Nationalism and Zionism. Initially, a succession of wars initiated by Arab States, punctuated unsuccessful conflict resolution between 1947 and 1967 which could be attributed to the Arab States’ refusal to officially recognise the State of Israel since its establishment in 1948. Attempts to reclaim the land designated to the State of Israel by the UN and the British Empire in the Balfour Declaration were important in the Arab state’s motives in the First Arab-Israeli War. This lack of recognition existed hand in hand with the anti-Semitic viewpoint, emphasised by rhetoric in the Quran where it was stated that Jews were “sons of pigs and apes” (Morris, p.5, 2008). Importantly, it presented itself as a barrier to peace as it meant that the Arab States were unwilling to engage with Jews and visa versa, thus preventing bilateral negotiations. In this, it highlighted the opposing identities underlined by Nasser intentions to “totally exterminate Israel” (McDowell, p.907, 2015) after the Partition Plan was announced and resume pan-Arabism across the Middle Eastern region. This emphasises the ability of the mediator in overcoming this barrier because it is an alternative to the bilateral negotiations. However, this demonstrates how this psychological barrier can be overcome and is thus not important as an obstacle to peace- the official recognition of Israel by the PLO during the Oslo Accords in 1993 confirms this. On the other hand, the assassination of Anwar Sadat by an Egyptian extremist after the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 in protest of his pro-peace and pro-US approach to conflict resolution does demonstrate the significance of collective identity in the conflict but this is not necessarily as a means to obstruct peace. Instead, it demonstrates a need for the consideration of both identities and what as a collective these identities require in terms of negotiation technique.
In terms of psychological barriers, there is nothing more pertinent than the narrative that feeds the psychology of the parties involved in the conflict. In this sense, historiographical bias plays an important role in determining attitudes and opinions of the individuals and organisations concerning the opposition and their own rights. This is particularly evident with the emergence of the New Historians in the 1980s with leading thinkers such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim who argued that previous accounts of Jewish occupation of Palestinian land had been bias towards the Israeli side and deemed the founding fathers as “less than heroic” (Caplan, p.97, 1995). This has been important in forming a psychological barrier could be interpreted as justification for certain trends within Arab States’ domestic politics as well as a nature of mistrust and suspicion of the Israeli side (that Sadat states in his speech). It could be asserted that this mistrust and suspicion on behalf of the Arab states is due to this recognition of the ‘new’ academic and international understanding of the conflict which had formerly favoured the Israeli cause and a “sensitivity to Jewish suffering” (Morris, p.41, 2008) played a role in this. Arguably, the evolution of domestic politics in Arab States towards trends such as terrorism in mainstream politics is partially, amongst other factors, the result of this transition to a more sympathetic understanding of the conflict towards Palestine by enabling the PLO to act forcefully. The PLO’s open acceptance of responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks against Jewish civilians, with the intention of the “destruction of Israel” (Toledano, p.595, 1982) proved a huge obstacle to peace by deterring Israel from engaging in bilateral negotiations and recognising the PLO as legitimate. The head of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, claimed to have condemned terrorism by his organisation in a speech at the Madrid Conference in 1991, but the international community instead interpreted his words as a lack of intention to use his “powers and police force to bring it to an end” (Smith, p.23, 20014). In this way, it again demonstrates how, despite increased sympathy towards the Arab side, the existence of terrorism in its mainstream politics distances Israeli and Arab sides even further from peace, highlighting how mistrust in the conflict derails negotiations.
Distrust in the opposition remains a significant barrier to peace, especially as it encourages both sides to doubt each other’s motives. This is also evident in the perception of the relationship between each side and external powers which come into play in the conflict. With Israel, this concerns the state’s relationship with the US, and for Palestine, it is the relationship with Arab States and the environment of vulnerability which comes with these alliances. With a strong influence of AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in US Congress, political decision-making in favour of a pro-Israel agenda in the US has become normalised to an extent where it is internationally recognised that “U.S Foreign Policy supports Israel’s interests” (Mearsheimer & Walt, p.152-153, 2007) thus questioning the intentions and neutrality of the US as a mediator in this conflict. It becomes a psychological barrier by encouraging Arab States to spite Israel’s behaviour and not be completely transparent during negotiations. Despite attempts by most US administrations during the conflict mediation to take an ‘even-handed’ approach, the US mediation had, according to the Palestinians, been trying to “block… any international involvement in support of the Palestinians” (AbuZayyad, p.72, 2007). Perception of such mediation is important such that it draws attention to what consists a fair resolution which was ‘beneficial for both sides’. In this sense, relationships with external powers in this conflict, (particularly with the mediator) had brought increasing amounts of pressure on the outcome of the conflict resolution. For example, the mere relationship between the mediator and Israel in terms of language demonstrates in itself a psychological bias towards a resolution sympathetic to the Israelis because of the ambiguous language chosen to describe UN resolution 242 after the Six Day War. This is just an example of how the closeness in culture and language of Israel to the mediator (at this time, the UN) determines a bias, and how the resolution was purposely left “inexplicit regarding the extent of Israeli withdrawal” (McDowall, p.1368, 2007). This reinforced Arab distrust of the mediator and once more resulted in rhetoric of the “annihilation of Israel” (Fernandez, p.43, 2005). This underlined how important this barrier is as an obstacle because it reinforced the perception of Israel’s ability to “exercise a de facto veto on U.S. diplomatic policy” (Fernandez, p.44, 2005) on the conflict as it did not need to comply with all the elements of the resolution.
Other elements of the relationship between the conflict states and external powers particularly between Palestine and the Arab States, has additionally provoked an atmosphere of mistrust and vulnerability which has slowed conflict resolution. Although the Arab States are directly involved in the conflict, I am referring to the Arab States as external powers because they work in negotiations to ensure the determination of the Palestinian cause. In this way, Palestinian alliances with states such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt have triggered an Israeli military overreaction in response to certain threats. Geographically, Israel is required to protect itself as it is surrounded by “hostile states” (Bar-Tal, p.611, 2001) and the surprise attacks of the 6 Day War and Yom Kippour War confirm this environment of vulnerability. Furthermore, these offensives determine Israel’s suspicion of the motives of the Palestine and the Arab States, particularly as a result of branches of the PLO took a “foothold in Jordan” (Legum, p.7, 1981) and other states. The environment of vulnerability is a barricade to peace because it encourages excessive arming of Israel and the ‘need’ for military support from the US in the case of another ambush. For example, this need for Israel to arm itself ultimately triggered a response such that negotiations in Oslo, as well as the UN conflict resolutions after 1948, often concerned demilitarisation and “the withdrawal of territories occupied in the recent conflict” (McDowall, p.1370, 2007) instead of resolving the core factors of the conflict itself.
In conclusion, it is clear that the psychological barriers pose a great threat to resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The existence of mistrust and suspicion, as stated by Sadat is the most important factor in impeding peace because it instigates a lack of transparency and predictability concerning one side’s perception of the other, causing more extreme actions. This mistrust presents itself in numerous ways, the intentions of either Palestine or Israel in alliance with external powers and also through the emergence of the ‘New Historians’ which emphasises Arab suspicion over Israel’s actions and shapes the domestic politics in Palestine and the Arab States. On the other hand, the lack of recognition of state legitimacy has been evident in delaying resolutions to this conflict. This is evident for both the Israeli and Arab cause because the lack of recognition of Palestine in the 1947 resolution had resulted in the outbreak of the First Arab-Israeli war the year after. Israel also suffered with the lack of official recognition of its establishment while its annihilation was the centre piece of the PLO’s agenda provided further grounds for a refusal in bilateral negotiations. These elements of suspicion are extensively responsible for the impossibility of peace as they ensure that those involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict are unwilling to lay all their cards on the table; this is more important in snubbing peace efforts than collective identity because these identities can be overcome with the involvement of a mediator.
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