The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like an ever-growing pile of complications. It is possible to take a step back from this very real, very inconvenient complexity, however, and ask one simple question: What should be the overriding priority of each body of leaders involved?
The answer I’m looking for is “peace.” And, ethically and strategically, “peace” should remain the answer for any individual governing body even when the other parties to the conflict seem to have other goals. Unfortunately, in practice, that’s not how most political leaders’ minds work.
Last week, the Israeli military captured a flotilla of ships bound for the Gaza strip, resulting in violence. There has been backlash from some in the international community, thinly-veiled exasperation from US leaders, and defiance from Israeli authorities. As usual. It doesn’t matter whether the violence was the consequence of an overzealous Israeli military or overzealous protesters or both: this is what always happens.
I don’t have a solution, but I do have two predictions: first, symbolic concessions will be a part of any and every meaningful step toward peace; second, in the long run, those who make such concessions will be remembered as heroes. Symbolic concessions are almost always in the material strategic interest of both sides, because peace promotes long-term gain. Eventually, I hope, a leader will emerge who places, or can be convinced to place, peace before pride.
Ideas like these may be old news, but it’s worthwhile to return to a 2007 article from Science magazine, “Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution” by Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod, and Richard Davis.
The authors begin with a discussion of “sacred values” as a cultural phenomenon. Unlike “instrumental values,” sacred values motivate behavior regardless of the likelihood that material gain will result. Many sacred values, such as the desire to protect young children, are shared by many cultures, but each culture also has some which are unique to itself. In international conflicts, symbolic concessions — efforts to explicitly recognize the validity of the opponent’s sacred values — can drive material compromises.
Atran and his colleagues surveyed Israeli and Palestinian people (both political leaders and ordinary citizens) about three hypothetical peace proposals. The first was a simple trade-off, and most respondents simply said “no.” The second was the same trade-off, with an additional material incentive for the respondent’s own side. A “rational” model of politics would frame this as a better deal, but respondents responded even more negatively, including showing anger and increased support for violence. The incentive was viewed as an effort to manipulate the group into abandoning its principles for money. The third hypothetical proposal was the same trade-off, with a purely symbolic concession and no material incentive. The general public responded positively; leaders were somewhat more guarded, saying that the symbolic concession would work only if coupled with a material concession.
Two of the political leaders Atran and colleagues talked to were Musa Abu Marzouk, the Deputy Chairman of Hamas, and Binyamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli opposition leader but now the Prime Minister. Marzouk’s response to the idea of a peace agreement with a credible promise of US aid to rebuild the Palestinian-controlled area was “No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount,” but his response to the same offer with a mere apology from Israel instead of aid from the US was a more promising “Yes, an apology is important, but only 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.” Netanyahu’s response to the idea of a symbolic concession from Hamas acknowledging Israel’s right to exist was “Yes, but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations.” In short, high-ranking leaders on both sides care enormously about sacred values, and genuine symbolic compromises are prerequisites to the material compromises that characterize traditional realpolitik peacemaking.