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Incentives and peace: part 2

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 26 August 2016


Unless distrust, insecurity, and illusions are first addressed, no incentives - however sweeping and compelling - will motivate Israel and the Palestinians to make the critical concessions needed to reach a peace agreement.

Part II: This article is a continuation from last week's; please click here to see part one.

The international conference that was convened by France on June 3rd in Paris to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ended up without concretely establishing specific measures that would persuade both parties to resume negotiations in order to reach a peace agreement. The joint communiqué issued following the conference stated "The participants discussed possible ways in which the international community could help advance the prospects for peace, including by providing meaningful incentives to the parties to make peace."

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Although the conferees agreed to reconvene again later this year and offer some incentives to both sides to restart the negotiations in earnest, I maintain that no incentives, however extensive and compelling, will succeed unless preceded by a period of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, if Netanyahu or Abbas refuse to engage in a process of reconciliation, this would strongly suggest that they are not interested in reaching a peace agreement, let alone making the major concessions necessary to achieve peace.

While incentives will eventually become necessary to lock in an agreement, there are three essential impediments that must first be mitigated in order to change the Israelis' and Palestinians' perception of each other to enable them to negotiate in good faith.

The final element (in addition to distrust and national security) is the illusions that significant constituencies on both sides continue to entertain, which ultimately deny each other's right to an independent state of their own.

Illusions: In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud offers the following definition: "…we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification." What is characteristic of illusions is that: 1) they are derived from deep human wishes, and 2) the belief is held (or would be held) in the absence of any compelling evidence, or good rational grounds, on its behalf.

Both sides have a very powerful and widely influential constituency that still believes they can have it all. In Israel, parties such as Jewish Home, which is led by Naftali Bennett and part of the coalition government, still believe that much of the West Bank should be annexed and that no viable Palestinian state should be established as Israel can manage the conflict indefinitely.

On the part of the Palestinians, groups such as Hamas believe that all of Palestine, including Israel, is Palestinian territory, and that under any circumstances (and despite occasional statements to the contrary) Israel should not exist as an independent Jewish state. At best, they believe that the Jews can live in Palestine under Palestinian rule.

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Both sides have been living with illusions about these issues and are imbued with a zero-sum approach, as if any gain by one side must be at the expense of the other. Unfortunately, the leadership on both sides have done nothing but promulgate these beliefs, and even less to disabuse themselves of these illusions.

Since illusions answer to inner needs, having to give them up can be an extremely painful, even traumatic experience. As a result, one of the major obstacles to adopting the Arab Peace Initiative (API) has been that many Israelis are still not prepared psychologically to relinquish some of their most cherished illusions (i.e. acquiring the whole land of Israel). On the other hand, the Palestinians, especially Hamas, also want to control the entire mandated Palestine, which is illusionary as well.

Israel's illusions have served to create the logic for occupation, ultimately perpetuating the dehumanization of the Palestinians. Israel's political leadership clung to these illusions and never understood the mindset of the Palestinians.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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