Sunday, January 25, 2009


I want to call attention to an interesting op-ed in today's The New York Times on the Israeli/Palestinian problem.

Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges write on how little monetary rewards or hopes for economic improvement mean to either the Palestinians or Israelis who believe that their sacred values trump everything else even if means at the cost of their lives.

Write Atran and Ginges:

"Many of the respondents insisted that the values involved were sacred to them. For example, nearly half the Israeli settlers we surveyed said they would not consider trading any land in the West Bank — territory they believe was granted them by God — in exchange for peace. More than half the Palestinians considered full sovereignty over Jerusalem in the same light, and more than four-fifths felt that the “right of return” was a sacred value, too.

"As for sweetening the pot, in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that using the standard approaches of “business-like negotiations” favored by Western diplomats will only backfire.

"Many Westerners seem to ignore these clearly expressed “irrational” preferences, because in a sensible world they ought not to exist. Diplomats hope that peace and concrete progress on material and quality-of-life matters (electricity, water, agriculture, the economy and so on) will eventually make people forget the more heartfelt issues. But this is only a recipe for another Hundred Years’ War — progress on everyday material matters will simply heighten attention on value-laden issues of “who we are and want to be.”"

So Atran and Ginges come up with a compromise that they opine might very well work:

"Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist."

Frankly I have always looked with befuddlement on the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize "Israel's right to exist." For me, these are just words. If I were an Israeli, I cannot see caring at all about whether some Palestinian admits my country has a right to exist. In fact, Israel does exist, and Israel's existence is not conditioned upon making sure that Israel's neighbors confess to its existence right.

And similarly with the Palestinians. More than anything else, according to Atran and Ginges, the Palestinians want respect and contrition. They want Israelis to apologize for taking their land in 1948. They want Israelis to stop humiliating them.

So why can't Israel formally apologize? And why can't the Palestinians make a solemn acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist? The cost on both sides seems so small, so worthwhile, so cost-effective.

Write Atran and Ginges:

"Remarkably, our survey results were mirrored by our discussions with political leaders from both sides. For example, Mousa Abu Marzook (the deputy chairman of Hamas) said no when we proposed a trade-off for peace without granting a right of return. He became angry when we added in the idea of substantial American aid for rebuilding: “No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount.”

"But when we mentioned a potential Israeli apology for 1948, he brightened: “Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that.” His response suggested that progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues, rather than the reverse.

"We got a similar reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line former Israeli prime minister. We asked him whether he would seriously consider accepting a two-state solution following the 1967 borders if all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, were to recognize the right of the Jewish people to an independent state in the region. He answered, “O.K., but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations.”

"Making these sorts of wholly intangible “symbolic” concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist, simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science says they may be the best way to start cutting the knot."

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