Israel, Hamas, Evil, and the Bad-faith Actor Problem

Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter 165 - October 16, 2023


From the Directors - Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess


Again, let us express our deep sympathies for the many innocent people affected by the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza. We have been struggling ever since October 7, trying to decide what to say, when the events were so clearly unspeakably horrible. Clearly, there are no good answers. But there are many bad ones. We have been doing a lot of reading and thinking about what the conflict resolution and peacebuilding field might have to say about this tragedy. The ideas offered here are for thought and discussion. We have also included a lot of links to things we have been reading that have informed our thinking, and will be sharing more in a soon-to-come Colleagues and Context newsletter.  We welcome your comments. 


The Dornbusch Dictum 

To apply Dornbusch's famous dictum to conflict, "it takes longer for bad things to happen than you think it will, but when they happen, they happen faster than you thought they could."  For years, we have been arguing that society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict is the most serious problem facing humanity.  About 16 months ago, when we started the Beyond Intractability Substack Newsletter on hyper-polarization, we repeated our fear that our deepening social divisions were rapidly taking United States and many other societies toward some awful combination of three dystopian futures — one characterized by political dysfunction and societal breakdown, a second characterized by brutal authoritarian rule, and a third characterized by large-scale violence and war.  

For years, it seemed like our fears were overblown and bordering on paranoia. Somehow, despite the ever-present acrimony, things were, for the most part, continuing to function at some marginally acceptable level. Politics, for most of us, was a spellbinding hobby in which people enthusiastically cheered for the "home team's" successes and despaired whenever the other side scored a few points. The camaraderie surrounding the righteous and uncompromising fight to bend the arc of history away from supposedly evil intentions of our fellow citizens was, in its own way, a lot of fun and personally gratifying. Unfortunately, the euphoria that you get from fighting what you think is the “good fight” was more like the proverbial frog enjoying a nice warm bath, and not noticing that things were really getting way too hot. 

What we personally find so shattering about the runaway crisis caused by Hamas's brutal attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, the accompanying political breakdowns in Israel and United States (that likely helped Iran and Hamas conclude that such an attack could succeed), and a host of other disturbing events around the world is that they seem to signal the beginning of a rapid slide toward the dystopia that Dornbusch's dictum implies. [See, for instance, this, this, and this ] While this gut level fear may be overly pessimistic, we think that there are good reasons for worry and the urgent need to redouble our efforts to figure out how we might be able to reverse this trend.

Unspeakable Evil

Before turning our attention to the causes and implications of the Hamas attack, the role that the conflict and resolution and peacebuilding communities have played in shaping this event, and what we might do better going forward, let us take a moment to reflect on the unspeakable evil at the core of this attack. By unspeakable, we mean literally that. The images of what happened are so disturbing and such an affront to our common humanity that they are unbearably painful to watch or even talk or write about. Still, we must. [See this and this.]

This is not just another boring episode in the long history of Israeli/Palestinian skirmishes. Burning babies in cages in front of their parents or raping women and until their legs and pelvis are broken is something else entirely. These are not the acts of a few mentally deranged individuals (like the perpetrators of the United States' many mass shootings). This was a meticulously planned military operation whose atrocities were carefully planned, joyously committed, and then celebrated, in the streets, by the people of Gaza and far too many other places around the world. We are dealing with a sadistic, murderous, and suicidal cult that is interested in genocide and not coexistence with Israelis.  This is a cult that has unknown levels of support within the larger Palestinian community.  After all, no one who wants to live, dares speak out against this barbarous hysteria.  

Still, if we want to find our way out of this terrible place, we have to get beyond fear and anger and think as clearly as possible about the dangers now faced by Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world. Those of us with a background in conflict resolution and peacebuilding have a special obligation to think about the role that our field has played in shaping this horrific event and to carefully consider what we might be able to do differently going forward. This is the focus of the balance of this essay.

The Hamas Attack and its Attempt to Entrap Israel

The surprise, scale, and brutality of Hamas' attack, which comes on top of the near collapse of the Israeli democracy, complex geopolitical maneuverings surrounding the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and a possible rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, has taken us into a chaotic and dangerous period in which everyone connected with these events is going to have to adjust to a new and much more dangerous reality. If the parties involved are not very careful (and very lucky), there is a real danger that events will spin further out of control in ways that could easily result in a wider and even more catastrophic war — one with the very real prospect of direct U.S. involvement.  

Hamas has, in effect, dared Israel to overthrow it. It has also created an environment in which Israeli public opinion and the need to reestablish the credibility of Israel's deterrent gives them little choice but to try to do so. This is also a trap. [See, for instance, this and this.]  It's hard to to see how an Israeli campaign against Hamas could be conducted without producing the kind of humanitarian catastrophe that would lead to a global backlash against Israel that would further undermine global recognition of Israel's right to exist. That would be a truly existential threat to Israel and a one-sided victory for Hamas and the Palestinians, (despite the staggering human costs).

Escalation Pathways to a Wider War 

The danger of the current situation is compounded by the 150,000 missiles that Hezbollah has now hidden in civilian areas all over Lebanon. These have the potential to do so much damage to Israel's core population centers that Israel has had to resort to something close to the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy that characterized the Cold War nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  (Israel has threatened to return Lebanon to the Stone Age if those missiles were ever used to attack Israel's population centers.)

The way in which Iran (the principal backer of both Hamas and Hezbollah) and Syria respond to the crisis is of enormous importance. There is good reason to believe that the Iranians played a significant role in the original attack on Israel. [See this, this, and this.]  Now they are threatening preemptive action if Israel invades Gaza (an invasion they provoked). It seems like they are trying to manufacture an excuse for launching a wider war.

For Israel, the challenge of avoiding these catastrophes will be compounded by the hyper-polarized nature of Israeli politics. Even as the crisis unifies Israel, there remain deep divisions and serious concerns about the trustworthiness of the government and the the effectiveness of Israeli Defense Force that inexplicably allowed this to happen. The United States, Israel's principal and most critically important ally is, of course, suffering from its own brand of hyper-polarization. Among our disagreements is a debate over whether Israel is the victim or the villain in this story —  a debate that is revealing deep divisions within the Democratic Party. In addition, deep divisions within the Republican party led to the removal of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives shortly before Hamas attacked, who (as we write this) has not yet been replaced. So the U.S. Congress cannot conduct business, including the approval of additional funds or weapons for Israel. The political weaponization of these issues, in preparation for the 2024 U.S. election, is going to make it even harder for the U.S. to act decisively and effectively.

Judging Israel's Response

In the worldwide debate that has followed Hamas' attack, most everyone seems to feel some pressure to offer their opinion on what Israel should and should not do in response.  At one level, this is absurd. We, as outsiders, almost never have the in-depth knowledge needed to offer an informed opinion about what should be done. Most of us (except for Israelis and Gazans) also don't have to live with the consequences of our advice.  

That said, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is, to a large degree, being fought in the court of world opinion. It matters what people outside Israel think because, these thoughts help determine how their governments and their citizens respond to the crisis.

So, before judging Israel, we ask people to put this attack in perspective. For those in the United States, it is useful to compare this attack to the attack the U.S. suffered on 9/11. If we adjust for the relative size of the Israeli and US populations, the approximately 1300 people killed in the initial Hamas attack is equivalent to an attack on the U.S. that claimed roughly 42,000 lives — roughly 14 times more deadly than 9/11! This is made even more devastating by the fact that this was the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, that it bore considerable similarities to that atrocity, that 200+ hostages were taken, that the atrocities committed were particularly grotesque, and that we are now witnessing, after an initial surge of sympathy, a wave of global anti-Semitism of terrifying scope and intensity. Given this, it should be easy to understand the level of Israeli fear and its desire to utterly destroy Hamas and strengthen Israeli defenses so that something like this never happens again. [This is the best description that we found how Israelis see the situation.  If you read only one thing, read this before judging them. Also see this and this.] 

We should also note that, after 9/11, the United States felt justified in launching a 20-year campaign to remake, in our image, both Iraqi and Afghan societies — two costly campaigns that caused immense human suffering and both ending in failure. We hope that Israelis are able to find a less costly and more humane path to long-term peace and security —  for themselves, for the Palestinians, and for the other citizens of the region. We will not pretend to know how to do that, although we do have few thoughts that we think are worth sharing. 

The Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding Community's Role in Shaping the Crisis

To start with, we think that we should examine the significant role that the conflict resolution and peacebuilding community has played in shaping this crisis. Second, we, as a field, we need to think very hard about the peace and conflict lessons that should be learned from this tragedy. These are, of course, lessons that are likely to be applicable far beyond the immediate context, including, for example, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, India, and the many other places where Dornbusch's rapid slide towards catastrophe seems to be unfolding.

The undoubtedly controversial ideas offered in the balance of this essay represent our initial contribution to such a discussion.  We apply insights gleaned from our 30+ year inquiry into hyper-polarized intractable conflicts, such as those dividing Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews, and the domestic populations of both Israel and United States. In particular, our thinking is focused on the ways in which this particular case constitutes an extreme example of the bad-faith actor problem that we raised in Newsletter162.

We began our inquiry into intractable conflict (long ago) by focusing on those conflicts where conscientious and well-resourced efforts to apply the best-available conflict resolution and peacebuilding techniques failed to produce the kind of mutually beneficial outcome that our field has long championed. Certainly, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a prime example of such a case.

The Failure of the Two-State Solution

In the development of our field, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has arguably received more attention than any of the world's other high profile intractable conflicts. The Oslo Accords, with its detailed roadmap to the now famous two-state solution, constitutes one of the proudest accomplishments of our young field. Efforts to transform the vision embodied in those agreements into two nations – one Palestinian and one Israeli — living together in peace and prosperity — has been a major preoccupation of US foreign policy for the last 30 years and a major goal pursued by international peacebuilders and a host of other national, international, and non-governmental actors and organizations.

As the Hamas' attack has most visibly and tragically demonstrated, this is an effort that must be regarded as a failure. This conclusion is based on the fact that the recent tragedy is just the latest episode in a long-running historical sequence of events in which Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, Israelis, deliberately turned away from, rather than toward, the peace plans that our field has so confidently championed. 

While these past setbacks have, of course, provoked similar periods of introspection, the magnitude of the immediate tragedy and the likelihood that things will get worse, demands that we look harder at the things that have gone wrong, quit pushing ideas that aren't working, and, hopefully, figure out what might be done to start us on a more promising path toward stable peace.

The Good-Faith Assumption

As we have tried to apply what we've learned about intractable conflict to this challenge, we have found ourselves focusing on an implicit assumption that underlies most conflict resolution and peacebuilding work. As we explained in Newsletter 162, the current generation of conflict and peacebuilding strategies rely on the assumption that the parties are willing to make a good-faith effort to find, and then pursue, a mutually beneficial way of resolving their conflict — one that would allow all parties to live in peace and according to their values, provided that they give others the right to do the same. We have assumed that these good-faith actors will be willing to look for wise and effective ways of addressing common problems, while distributing society's benefits, as well as its obligations and sacrifices, fairly. 

This peacebuilding vision is similar to, but more expansive than, the democratic vision.  While democracies insist that all citizens use democratic processes to resolve their disputes, peacebuilding provides a framework for negotiating mutually beneficial relationships between democracies and authoritarian, theocratic, and even failed states. 

Bad-Faith Actors

What the peacebuilding vision does not do (and we think that this is the problem in this particular case) is provide a pathway to peace when one of the nations or groups involved is irrevocably committed to the destruction of the other group. We call these groups, which are the opposite of good-faith actors, bad-faith actors. [See also this.] At the extreme, this includes those who pursue genocidal "ethnic cleansing" campaigns that are rightly viewed as the most serious of all war crimes. This is what many Palestinians (and much of the larger Arab and Muslim world) has been committed to doing ever since Israel was created out of the refugee flows following World War II. [See this, this, and this.]

Refugee and Immigrant Conflicts

Throughout history, the flow of refugees and immigrants has been one of the principal sources of political tension and conflict throughout the world, as people facing difficult and, sometimes, desperate and untenable circumstances decide that they have no real option but to flee to someplace that, because of some accident of history or geography, seems like a viable refuge. And, since they often have no place to go back to, they are often willing endure enormous hardship and, if necessary, fight to stay where they are. 

In many cases, these tensions are ultimately resolved is through integration between the immigrant and native community. This has happened, to a considerable degree, in the United States, as many immigrants have, within a generation or two, become deeply integrated into the fabric of our country, even while others remain on the margins. In other cases, political changes (such as the end of a civil war) can make it possible for refugees to return home. In still other cases, refugees can be held in limbo for an extended period of time. This, of course, is the situation in Israel/Palestine.

Before talking about refugee flows into and out of Israel and the role that these flows have played in the conflict, it is important to note that the history of murderous violence against Jews in the region goes back long before 1948 as this article and this article explain. 

Still, questions about the treatment of refugees are a core part of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Approximately 700,000 Palestinians fled Israel's original (much smaller) borders in 1948 when Israel declared its independence. They hoped that Arab armies would be able to expel the Israelis from the region entirely, and they would be able to return to their homes. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, in the war that followed Israel prevailed, leaving these refugees with nowhere to go. This was what Palestinians call the "Nakba" or the "Catastrophe." 

Given the deep animosities that followed the war, it is not surprising that Palestinians did not return to what is now Israel. But many of them still want to, and want what is called "the right of return” for all their decedents (~ 5 million as of 2012, undoubtedly more by now).   Israel (with a population of less than 7 million Jews and 2 million Arabs) sees this as absolutely unacceptable. Not only would there be no place to put that many people, the demographic changes would mean that Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. It would, therefore, not be able to provide a safe haven for Jews that it has always been intended to provide. 

And this isn’t just about numbers. It is also because many Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, have been calling for the killing of Jews and the destruction of Israel ever since it was formed. How could Israel be a safe place for Jews if a significant number of its residents felt that way and engaged in a long-term terror campaign against their Jewish neighbors?  It is also worth noting that, in the years following the creation of Israel, it became a place of refuge for persecuted Jews from around the world, including approximately 340,000 who came from various Arab countries. So, the flow of refugees has gone both directions.

The magnitude of the threat posed by the large and hostile Arab states surrounding Israel, the fact that its citizens had nowhere else to go, and the still-recent memory of the Holocaust, not surprisingly, convinced Israelis to build an extremely sophisticated and powerful defense force — a force that has, with US support, been able to sustain the country through the many wars, uprisings, and terrorist attacks that have marked its 75 year history. But that defense failed badly on October 7, leaving Israel deeply shaken and afraid for its very existence.

The Path toward Coexistence – a Road Not Taken

While Palestinians could have focused their efforts on finding a way to coexist with the Israelis in the kinds of ways imagined by the Oslo Agreements and other peace efforts, they chose a different path — one focused on an all-consuming quest to destroy Israel. 

This quest has been punctuated by a series of major wars, uprisings, and terrorist attacks which are far too complex and numerous to summarize here. [For a more in-depth guide to this history, we recommend this.] Still, there are a few particularly important events that are worth noting. Of these, perhaps the most important was the 1967 War in which Israel preemptively attacked Egypt, Jordan, and Syria as they were preparing to attack Israel. At the end of what is known as the "Six-Day War" Israel had taken control of the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, along with the people, mostly Palestinians, who lived there.  

Given that Israel was still surrounded by hostile neighbors committed to its destruction and that its original, pre-1967 borders were extremely difficult to defend, Israel decided to retain and solidify its control of these areas — a fact that inflamed regional tensions and, especially, tensions with the Palestinians (who were particularly incensed by the fact that more and more Israeli "settlers" started to move into these territories). In 1973, a surprise attack (launched on Yom Kippur —  the most holy day on the Jewish calendar) started yet another war that also failed to drive Israel from the occupied territories (even though Israel came much closer to losing that time). 

The escalation dynamics surrounding these wars and a long series of terrorist attacks on civilians, combined with Israel's quite forceful and sometimes brutal response, not surprisingly, continued to amplify and reinforce the intensity of the us-vs-them conflict between Israelis and its Palestinian and Muslim neighbors. This, as we know from our study of intractable conflicts, is the dehumanizing dynamic that leads people to do the most terrible things to one another. 

Failed Peacemaking and Peacebuilding

This sad state of affairs produced the kind of extraordinarily difficult situation that peacemaking and peacebuilding techniques were designed to address. Indeed, in 1977, the entire chemistry of the conflict changed with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's bold trip to Jerusalem, where he was warmly received. His peace overture was followed by U.S. President Carter's successful effort to mediate a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt — an agreement which led to the return of the Sinai to Egyptian control and, to this day, ended active hostilities between the two countries.

What followed was an attempt to apply the same "land for peace" strategy to the core conflict between Israelis and Palestinians living in occupied territories on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The 1993 negotiation of the Oslo Accords took the first big step toward this goal by recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and establishing a Palestinian National Authority to provide limited self-governance over parts of the West Bank and Gaza. It also set in motion a complex series of permanent-status negotiations intended to produce a final peace agreement and long-term stability in the region.

The 30 years since Oslo have seen two major efforts to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. After the first agreement was accepted by the Israelis in 2000, it was rejected by the Palestinians who, rather than calling for changes that would have made the agreement acceptable, launched a major terror campaign against Israel. A second peace offer in 2008 met a similar fate. 

The Violence Following Oslo

Hopes that the Palestinian Authority would evolve into the kind of responsible governing body that the two-state solution imagined faded with, among other things, the inability of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to implement a series of reforms that would have made the Palestinian Authority into a genuinely  successful governing body. Instead, there was continuing turmoil around the relationship between the PA and Hamas, corruption and a collapse of the democratic process. (Abbas, current President of the Palestinian National Authority is in the 17th year of his four-year term.) More ominously, the unpopularity of the Abbas government has led to a high level of support for Hamas on the West Bank and the very real possibility that they could seize control of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

The period also saw the painful unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza (in 2005) and transfer of full governing authority to the Palestinian Authority. Rather than producing the kind of peace that advocates of the two-state solution imagined, the Palestinians took the opportunity to build a war machine to attack Israel. When Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, they instituted a brutal authoritarian regime that focused its energies on attacking Israeli civilians, rather than working to improve the lives of Gazans. Their frequent missile attacks often provoked intense Israeli reprisals (though at other times, they were simply blocked by Israel's "iron dome," and otherwise ignored.)  Since Israelis could not completely prevent these Hamas' attacks, they adopted a "mow the grass" strategy of conducting periodic military operations to reduce Hamas' capabilities — capabilities that would then be rebuilt with resources siphoned off aid money. 

Also complicating the situation is the fact that Hamas routinely employs various types of civilian shields to protect its military operations. For example, it's missiles are frequently shot from civilian locations — even schools and hospitals — which means that the only way Israel can defend against these attacks is by risking civilian casualties.  Hamas knows this and knows that, because of their use of civilian shields, these attacks usually cause more deaths than Hamas’ original attacks. In spite of its morally reprehensible nature, the strategy has been quite effective at turning world opinion further against the Israelis and toward Palestinians who are increasingly seen as the victims, not the attacker. 

This was, most likely, the primary intent of Hamas's recent attack.  As the current uproar the explosion at a Gaza hospital demonstrates, this strategy is being extremely successful (even though it seems quite likely that the explosion was caused by a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket, not by the Israelis at all. Hamas was quick to blame Israel nevertheless, and Western media quickly picked up the story and ran with it, without checking out its veracity.  The New York Times even went so far as to show a picture that was said to be the destroyed hospital—but it wasn't. (It was an entirely different building.) After it became clear that they likely made an error, the Times and other news outlets changed their stories to say that Israel was denying that they struck the hospital, and that the evidence was "unclear." ) A CNN story that ran on Saturday October 21, however, says their own forensic analysis confirms what Israel and Biden had been saying for some time—this was not Israel's doing. But the damage to Israeli credibility and the intensifying of global anti-Semitism was already accomplished, and President Biden was forced to cancel several meetings with Arab leaders, which might have been quite helpful. As Yasha Mounk said in his interview with Mona Charen on Beg to Differ, this was a major propaganda triumph for Hamas.

A similar Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon produced, not peace, but a takeover by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah that has now aimed 150,000 missiles that can accurately target Israel's population centers. The period also saw a continuing stream of terrorist attacks on Israel from the West Bank — attacks that led Israel to launch numerous security operations and build a highly-guarded separation barrier (sometimes a wall/sometimes a fence) designed to prevent suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks. The wall is ghastly looking and very disruptive of the lives of Palestinians. However, it has been reasonably effective at preventing suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks that were commonplace before the barrier was built.

At the same time, Israel has been continuing its expansion of settlements into the West Bank that began shortly after seizing that territory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Many Israelis assert the need to hold such settlements as a security measure, but others see them as pursuing Israel's God-given right to the area, and they advocate annexing the entire West Bank as a permanent part of Israel. These settlements remain a major issue of contention between Palestinians and Israelis, and are seen as illegal by the international community, adding to the lack of international sympathy for or support of Israel. But Israel has now seen what happened when they unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. So there is going to be extreme reluctance to withdraw from the West Bank, especially, after the latest Hamas attack.

Amid all of the setbacks, and the unconscionable things each side has done to the other, Israel has also acted with more compassion toward "the enemy" than is common in other such highly escalated conflicts. For example, Israelis have provided tens of thousands of Palestinians each year with medical care that is not available in the occupied territories. The IDF has also gone to great lengths to reduce civilian casualties associated with its security operations. Given the horrific nature of the latest attacks, however, it would not be surprising if Israel's compassion is much reduced. 

Bottom line, the Oslo Accords did not lead to a slow march towards peace. Instead, the result has been a slow and now greatly accelerating march toward catastrophe. 

Competing Frames / "Theories of the Case"

At this point there are three broad "theories of the case" or frames that people are using to make sense of these events and guide their attitudes and behavior. 

  • Israeli Conquest — This frame, which tends to be dominant among Palestinians (and those on the progressive left in the U.S. and other Western democracies) tends to look at the world events and this conflict as a struggle between colonialists of white European origin and the marginalized "BIPOC"  (black, indigenous and other people of color) communities that they have continually dominated and marginalized. Those holding this frame see the last 75 years as simply the continuation of Israel's efforts to colonize the area and expel the Palestinians — something that is so evil that that they believe that it should be resisted by any means necessary, including the kind of brutal terrorism that was on display on October 7. (This is why so many progressives in the U.S. were either silent about Hamas's attack, or outright celebrated it.
  • Give Peace a Chance — This way of looking at the situation reflects the core beliefs of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding movements and is based on the assumption that, at their core, both parties are good-faith actors and that if violence can just be controlled enough to defuse the escalation spiral, then the parties can learn to live together in peace and make the two-state solution work.  This, most likely, is behind the calls for a cease-fire, and calls for reinstituting talks about either the two-state solution, or a one state solution, such as the one being suggested by our colleague Lisa Schirch, which is actually being called a "two-state one homeland" solution." 
  • Anti-Semitic Genocide — This final way of looking at this situation (which is now dominant among Israelis) takes formal statements by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and many of Israel's Muslim neighbors at face value and accepts the fact that they want to destroy Israel. Looking back at the last 75 years of war, terrorism, and failed peace efforts, they see no reason to doubt this basic conclusion. For them, the question is simply how can they protect themselves in this hostile environment. Here, they see no alternative but the combination of defensive barriers and, occasional, military reprisals aimed at limiting the threat. While they would love to be able to switch to a "give peace a chance" frame, they realize that that is not something they can do unilaterally; they have to have a partner for peace. Not only do they not see one, they see a determined, and now frighteningly effective, enemy instead.

Reconsidering Our Frames

While it is doubtless true that there is some degree of validity to each of these frames, this is not a case in which all frames are equally valid and there is no objective truth. It is important that the weight we attach to each of these frames accurately reflects the extent to which each frame describes the real world in which we are living. For example, giving too much weight to the Israeli Conquest frame and not enough weight to the Anti-Semitic Genocide frame could, in the current climate, easily contribute to a slow (or perhaps fast) slide toward a second Holocaust. Giving too little weight to the Israeli Conquest frame risks a failure to protect the legitimate rights of Palestinians. And, abandonment of the Give Peace a Chance frame risks removing the only viable path to a future that meets the human needs of all parties.

In the aftermath of the October 7 attack, and after looking back at the long series of events that led up to that attack (summarized above), we have come to the regrettable conclusion that, while the Give Peace a Chance frame is undoubtedly much more attractive, it does not accurately describe the situation faced by Israelis and those who seek to bring peace to this troubled region. Sadly, we have to acknowledge that the anti-Semitic genocide frame is now dominant.  

Amid all of the chaos, violence, and biased information sources, filtering out escalation dynamics and making a reasoned judgment on this critical question was very difficult.  Still, our reasoning is relatively simple.  It seems clear to us that what Israelis most want is a place to live in peace and security.  Our sense is that they would be willing to compromise on most everything in exchange for that. Based on the many sources cited above, we concluded that the Palestinian's core interest is the complete expulsion of Jews from the region — a goal that they have endured enormous pain and deprivation to pursue. Until this changes, it it is hard to imagine how the give peace a chance frame could be viable. And, we don't really believe that Israel wants to conquer or expel the Palestinians. It simply wants to protect itself from incessant attacks.

Lessons from October 7

It seems to us that the lessons are pretty straightforward. Peacebuilders and peacemakers ought to make clear that, for either process to work and for participants in these processes to enjoy the support that comes with that participation, everyone involved needs to accept the basic principles of good-faith negotiation. These include honestly presenting one’s core interests and needs, (which cannot be destruction of "the other") along with their hopes and fears. They also need to respectfully listen to and consider others’ interests, needs, hopes, and fears. In addition, good-faith negotiators must try as much as they can to find areas of common ground, opportunities to "expand the pie," and potential areas of give and take, so that each side can give up some things in order to acquire others. 

This doesn't mean just saying the right things in low-profile and often "off the record" peace negotiations and then saying and acting with continued hostility and even hatred or violence when they go home. Rather, participants in peacemaking and peacebuilding processes need to work to educate and bring along their constituents, so that, once an agreement is signed, it is supported and willingly implemented by the grassroots citizens, as well as by the leaders and the negotiators.

The failure to make this most minimal commitment ought to be accompanied by public acknowledgment of the fact that the peace process and the two-state solution is dead, at least until these minimal concessions are made. Right now, we need diplomacy designed to help both sides defend themselves from attacks, and isolate and sanction the leadership that continues to behave in provocative and violent ways. Willingness to call out disingenuous participation in peace processes, and limit the power of spoilers (people who use violence to derail or prevent negotiations or peace agreements) we think is the best way to push people back on the road toward peace. Without this kind of willingness to call out disingenuous behavior, the peacebuilding community is doing quite the opposite — it is acting as an enabler of the kind of violence that we saw on display on October 7.

The sad corollary to all of this is that, in conflicts where one (or more) of the parties are still committed to the destruction of the other, we don't now have an alternative to terrible military confrontation — the kind of confrontation that, with all of its horrors, is now unfolding. Pretending to make peace in cases where the minimal conditions for peace do not exist is a form of appeasement that could easily lead to even greater tragedy. 

In his essays on Ripeness and Ripeness-Promoting-Strategies in Beyond Intractability, Bill Zartman says that negotiations are very unlikely to succeed if the situation is not “ripe.” In order to be ripe, all the parties must perceive that they are in a mutually-hurting stalemate, and that there is no “way out” other than negotiations.  The Palestinians have long believed that they can win outright, if they just inflict enough pain on the Israelis over a long enough period of time, and then turn world attitudes against the Israelis when they use violence to defend themselves.  And, although this results in what seems to outsiders to be an exorbitant amount of pain being inflicted on the Palestinians, too many Palestinians seem to believe that the pain is worth it, as it makes them martyrs to a just cause. So, before negotiations can begin to create a fertile ground for a peace agreement that will stick, all the parties need to come to an understanding that they cannot get what they want and need through violence.  

Right now, Hamas and the Palestinians are getting the opposite message.  As horrific as the October 7 attack was, it is still being applauded as heroic all around the world. Israel is being attacked for things it didn't do (for instance attacking the hospital in Gaza. This reinforces the Palestinian notion that time is on their side, and if they can continue to hurt Israelis enough, they will eventually leave or die.  

Peacemakers and peacebuilders need to try to alter the perception that violence is “the way out” by providing or showing the parties that there is a better way. But until we can produce that better way — and make it credible to a large majority of the parties including grassroots citizens, they will continue to depend on violence to try to get their needs met. 

Outsiders thought that the two-state solution provided a reasonable compromise that would meet the needs of both parties. The Palestinians, however, did not feel that this was an issue on which they were willing to compromise, and that violent resistance was needed instead. This drove Israel to respond with its own violence, which created a never-ending feedback loop of attacks and counterattacks, each escalating the fear, distrust, hatred, and the desire for revenge. 

More recently, a variety of “one-state” (or the two-states, one homeland referenced above) solutions are being proposed, in which both nationalities would live peacefully together in the same geographic area.  But with the amount of fear, distrust, anger and pain that has occurred over the last several decades, and particularly over the last two weeks, it seems extremely unlikely that the populations would be willing to take the risk of living next door to “the other” anytime soon. We peacemakers need to develop a much better plan for dealing with this problem before we can expect both sides to adopt it.  

How peacebuilders and other international actors can do this isn’t clear, and we shouldn’t pretend it is.  The one thing that we are sure of is that simplistic answers — such as Israel unilaterally withdrawing from the occupied territories, or calling for an unconditional a ceasefire that leaves Hamas in power and celebrating its glorious victory are not going to bring peace, either for Israel or for the Palestinian people.  We peacebuilders need to augment our ability to help good-faith actors work through complex problems and do much more to figure out how to delegitimize, isolate, and disempower bad-faith actors wherever they are. This is especially important and especially difficult in extreme cases where unspeakable evil is involved. We will be writing about this more in the bad-faith actor series we started in Newsletter 162

Continue the Discussion

We realize that this is likely to be a quite controversial newsletter with which many of you will disagree. We welcome, and will, of course, post, thoughtful alternative arguments. At the very least, we think we all owe it to ourselves and to the Israelis and Palestinians to reconsider the frames with which we view this situation and consider the possibility that we may need to adjust our views. In doing this, it is important to look outside of the information bubbles we normally inhabit.  To facilitate this, we will, in conjunction with our weekly Colleague and Context newsletter, be publishing links to articles that we have found especially useful in thinking through this tragic situation. If you have articles to suggest we include, please send them along.


Lead Graphic: "Kidnapped" Poster — Source: By: Kriddl; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; Date Acquired: October 22, 2023


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