Why has peace not been reached in the Middle East? Is it because of the stubbornness of the parties involved, or because Israeli and Palestinian national narratives and ideas of justice and fairness are not adequately addressed, or perhaps because – quite simply – we're entrenched in an intractable, ungovernable, and insoluble conflict? Or does the answer lie somewhere else?
One would think that the issue had been covered from just about all angles: in the last decade alone, we have seen numerous peace initiatives fail: the Camp David Summit, the Arab Peace Initiative, the Road Map, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Initiative, the Geneva Initiative, the Saudi Peace Plan, the Bush [Junior] Initiative, and the Annapolis Peace Conference. All came and went – and yet still we seem to be deadlocked.
JIIS Academic Head Prof Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, who heads the Conflict Management and Resolution Research Cluster at the Institute, gathered together a team of scholars to ask why. The answer they reached collectively is that the road to these peace plans is strewn with barriers – roadblocks to peace, if you will.
"While many of these peace plans exhibited varying degrees of success in addressing some of the barriers that led to the breakdown of the talks, none of them grasped the extent of the barriers impeding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," Bar-Siman-Tov stresses. Nor did they explore practicable strategies for neutralizing the barriers to the peaceful resolution of the conflict.
In their study, Barriers to Peace, soon to be published in Hebrew and English the researchers discuss different types of barriers that they say greatly intensify and exacerbate the difficulties in reaching a settlement – and they offer a number of proposals for coping with them. Bar-Siman-Tov says, "these barriers frame the core issues of the conflict – Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and borders – not simply as strongly disputed interests, but as protected, sacred values, rooted in religious belief and historical meta-narratives and not open to compromise."
The book presents ground-breaking, original ideas representing a large number of disciplines. The researchers pinpoint and analyze the many barriers – structural, strategic, political, psychological, historical, cultural and religious – that prevent or hinder resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The barriers to peace are set in the deeper strata of the conflict – national identity, values, belief systems, historical narratives, and collective memory," notes Bar-Siman-Tov. Although they may have been acknowledged elsewhere, "they have never before been assembled to provide a comprehensive picture that reflects the complexity of the challenge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents." And, he adds, this JIIS publication "suggests ways for overcoming the barriers with a view to promoting a feasible settlement."
He stresses that no barriers are more “important” or “severe” than others, and that, in fact, "only a comprehensive account of all the barriers to peace can provide an accurate picture of the obstacles impeding the resolution of protracted and intractable conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." A key target audience for the book, the researchers believe, are "political leaders, who need to consider these barriers and identify new and creative ways to address them," he adds.
"There is a huge need right now to reconsider currently held beliefs and to consider alternative ways of thinking. Time is not necessarily on the side of either party," Bar-Siman-Tov says with concern. "In the final analysis, the costs of prolonging the conflict are likely to be greater than the necessary costs of a compromise for peace, and such a realization must inspire and encourage the peace process."
Among the more daunting findings of the project was that the gap between the narratives of both parties appears to be unbridgeable at this point. But that is precisely what spurred the scholars on to explore possible solutions. There are ways to bring the parties closer, they all agree. For example, "an effort could be made to develop a common frame of reference to facilitate dialogue over the many different narratives surrounding both sides’ national aspirations for separate, independent political frameworks by cultivating a willingness to recognize and study the contradictions between those narratives. Such a reconciliatory process could be immediately instituted and depends only on the initiative of political and civil society leaders on both sides" – as well as on the external involvement of a third party, they add.
"Even if the two sides are not yet ready to begin such a process, they could still agree to acknowledge the contradictory nature of their narratives, which are unbridgeable at present."
Indeed, both sides are seen as captives of their own historical narratives and the victims of a past that prevents their reaching any compromise. Although scholars realize that these historical narratives form part of the national identity of each side and should even be preserved as part of their national heritage, "they should not bind the parties to the past and deprive them of a better future." Bar-Siman-Tov says "it is important to emphasize in this context that agreeing to concessions for the sake of peace is not by definition a religious or moral transgression, nor is it a betrayal of one’s historical narratives and protected values. Quite the contrary: "unwillingness to compromise for peace is truly immoral, and future casualties will not forgive the bloodshed of another war."
The scholars who participated in this project are well aware of the difficulties, costs, and tribulations involved in peacemaking, as evidenced by the analysis of barriers to peace presented in the book. "We believe that our duty as researchers is to clear the way for peace by informing politicians and the general public of the barriers to resolving the conflict along with the options available for its resolution," Bar-Siman-Tov says, and points to precedents: "The late Israeli prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, both came to the realization that the pangs of war are greater than the pangs of peace, and that the road to peace is preferable to the road to war."