Israel and Symbolic Concessions

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.


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3 Responses to “Israel and Symbolic Concessions”

  1. Celia Says:

    I agree that peace should be the goal for both parties. That, however, is not the case. Hamas is a terrorist organization that does not want peace. It wants to keep its people in control by maintaining their suffering. It wants to manipulate the media in order to vilify Israel and Israeli soldiers. Israel has a blockade against ships coming in because in the past those ships were smuggling weapons to Israel’s enemies. The blockade is there for defense. This particular flotilla refused to stop to get checked, therefore Israeli soldiers were dropped to check out the ship. As soon as they got there, the “activists” on board attacked the soldiers with metal chains and lead pipes, beating them and throwing them overboard. How should the army respond to this? Israeli soldiers have just been attacked by people masquerading as activists. When Israel responds to this attack, world headlines read, “Israel attacks peace activists!” This was not a case of overzealous activists; these people were ready with weapons.

    This flotilla incident is in fact a large-scale representation of daily struggles of the Israeli soldier against the overzealous media. My personal friends have told me how they walk down the streets and Palestinian parents shoo their kids to the curb and encourage them to throw rocks at the soldiers, spit on, and kick them. Rocks flying at their faces! This may be a mere nuisance, but nobody I know would tolerate this behavior. The media however, is lined up and ready to snap a photo of any Israeli willing to shove a little kid out of the way. Next headline: IDF attacks Palestinian children. The real tragedy here and the part that saddens me the most is that small children are being taught to hate in a violent way. Those rocks will one day become guns, which will one day find their way strapped around those kids’ chests as a bomb, ready to explode and kill Israeli civilians and the wearer himself.

    So what is the sacred value here that Hamas is perpetuating? Killing Israelis. To Hamas, taking Israeli lives and eradicating the State are more important than protecting the lives and welfare of its own people. How can a solution ever be reached until BOTH sides see peaceful coexistence as the ultimate goal?

  2. Sara Burke Says:

    I agree that Hamas has made peace prospects unlikely. Their election four years ago was really disappointing. That’s part of the “complexity” I mention in the intro.

    I also agree that virtually all media outlets have an automatic process for spinning any violence that occurs in the region. For many, the automatic spin is to frame the Israeli military as evil. For some others, especially in the US, the automatic spin is to frame them as blameless. I do know that Hamas has a history of using reprehensible tactics, and I suspect that their “underdog” status frequently overshadows those tactics, which is unfortunate because it encourages their use. But I tried to stay away from the debate about which media framing style is “more right” in this case, because, like I said, it doesn’t really matter.

    Even if peace and justice are at odds, peace should be more important. It doesn’t matter which side has the “moral high ground.” Ideally, Israel should make meaningful symbolic concessions, regardless of whether they’re “deserved,” because it would make Hamas more likely to take practical steps toward peace, or at least diminish the power of extremist leaders. Ideally, Hamas should make meaningful symbolic concessions, regardless of whether they’re “deserved,” because it would make Israel more likely to take practical steps toward peace. Do I think that either side is likely to do that right now? No.

  3. Sara Burke Says:

    Oh, and regarding Hamas’ “sacred values”: Atran et al. suggest that symbolic concessions from one side can make the other side more likely to shift their view of certain goals from “sacred” to “instrumental.” For example, they point to the following statement by a Hamas leader:

    “In principle, we have no problem with a Palestinian state encompassing all of our lands within the 1967 borders. But let Israel apologize for our tragedy in 1948, and then we can talk about negotiating over our right of return to historic Palestine.”

    The statement may sound provocative to many Israeli leaders and supporters, but reduce it to its material components: Israel gives up nothing material, and Hamas agrees to a two-state solution. I don’t think that statement represents the “true” position of Hamas necessarily, but it does illustrate my point that it does not matter whether an apology is warranted (whether Israel actually did anything wrong) – it would be productive anyway. That’s why placing peace before pride would be a heroic act.

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