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In the grip of powerful illusions

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears to be illogical and unsettling as a majority of Israelis and Palestinians realize that coexistence, whether under conditions of enmity or friendship, is a fact that neither side can change short of a catastrophe. Both sides understand that the general parameters of a sustainable peace agreement must rest on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with some land swaps. However, both sides choose to revel in illusions and live in defiance of time and circumstances. They seem to prefer continuing violent clashes and bloodshed over peaceful coexistence, while blaming each other for the unending destructive path that tragically both have chosen to travel.

There are fundamental imperatives, coupled with long-term mutual security measures, which represent what was on the negotiating table in 2000 at Camp David and in 2010/2011 and 2013/2014 under the Obama administration's auspices in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Each round, with various degrees of progress, aimed at finalizing an agreement and yet ultimately failed to do so. The question is: why?

Biased and selective perceptions, reinforced by historical experiences, religion, and incompatible ideologies, have locked both sides into immobile positions. The factors that maintain and enhance these patterns include emotions such as fear, distrust, and insecurity. The psychological outcome is mutual denial of the narrative of the other and mutual delegitimization.


Put together, the operative result is stagnation and polarization. What is therefore needed is a consensus-oriented dialogue at the leadership level by both officials and non-officials, and people-to-people interactions, to resolve the issue of perception – a tall order given the current environment that buttresses rather than ameliorates prejudiced perceptions.

There are certain psychological concepts which are relevant to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the concept of illusion is an essential one. In The Future of an Illusion, 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.

It is impossible to deny that both Israelis and Palestinians are in the grip of very powerful illusions which only serve to prolong the conflict and prevent any mutual understanding. In particular, the belief shared by many Israelis that they have a biblical right to the land (including Judea and Samaria) and that God gave it to the Jews in perpetuity is undoubtedly an illusion of yesterday.

This belief is not affirmed because there is real evidence that God deemed it to be (although two Jewish kingdoms did exist - the first in the tenth century BCE and the second beginning in 539 BCE - on the same land), but because it satisfies a deep-seated psychological need for a God-given Jewish homeland.

The belief that by expanding the settlements Israel will augment its national security and maintain its hold on the entire land is an illusion of tomorrow, which generally ignores the presence of Muslims in the same land for more than 1,300 years.


It is important to note how these illusions sustain and reinforce one another, and constitute a psychological barrier which is much more impervious to critical reflection. Israel's illusions have served to create the logic for occupation.

The Palestinians, for their part, are not without their own illusions. They also believe that God has reserved the land for them, and appeal to the fact that they had inhabited the land for centuries. From their perspective, the presence of the al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built in 705 AD in Jerusalem, attests to their historical and religious affinity to the Holy City.

They also cling to the idea that they will someday return to the land of their forbearers, as they have and continue to insist on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, even though this has become a virtual impossibility.

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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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