Michael M. Cohen
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. The war to end all wars did nothing of the kind but birthed the Second World War and was the catalyst for many of the conflicts in the Middle East including the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latest chapter of that conflict is the Obama Administration’s arduous nine-month sponsored talks between the Israelis and Palestinians which appears to have reached its terminus. Those talks have focused on Jerusalem, security, borders and refugees. US Secretary of State John Kerry is now in “reality check time” as he evaluates the next steps with President Obama.
At this moment the question needs to be asked: Have Kerry and his team along with the Palestinians and Israelis been looking for peace in all the wrong places? Are the very important aforementioned issues not the real core issues but only surface issues? If they are not the core issues then what are? Undoubtedly those issues need to be addressed; however, the fact that they have been negotiated for over two decades since Oslo and we are nowhere closer to an agreement should make us ask whether attention needs to be turned to other areas.
One could say that both sides act as though they have been talking past each other. The truth is that that is exactly what has happened and it goes to the heart of an important dynamic in the negotiations. In his book “Beyond Culture” anthologist Edward Hall wrote how cultures tend to fall into two categories of communication. One is high-context and the other is low-context. With the former, ideas tend to be conveyed more through implication and inference. While in the latter, ideas are communicated with higher emphasis using explicate vocabulary and a greater regard for detail.
Palestinians tend to be a more high-context culture while the United States and Israel are defined more as low-context cultures. For example, there are a number of aspects to Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state. One way to understand his motivation is his low-context specific language comfort zone, contrasted with the Palestinian high-context understated approach. In his book, “Dialogue of the Deaf”, Raymond Cohen explored the differences between Israeli and Arab forms of communication.
David Lehrer, the Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, carried this cultural difference one step further when he wrote that Western “mediation is based on the principle that in a situation of conflict between two individuals or groups, the goal of the mediator is to move the parties from their stated positions to their actual interests. The sulha method of conflict resolution that is still practiced today in the Middle East is not at all about interests, at least not in a Western sense of the word. According to peace activist Elias Jabbour, sulha is all about returning both the rights of the injured party and dignity to all parties in the conflict.”
We see other cultural differences when it comes to their starting points and expectations as they enter a room to negotiate. For Palestinians, the inability of Israelis to understand the injustice of the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and the lack of Israeli acknowledgement in its role in the Palestinian refugee story are offensive.
That Partition Plan gave the Zionists 56.47 percent of the land and the Palestinians 43.53 percent of the land when at that point the Jews represented 33 percent of the population and owned only 7 percent of the land while the Palestinians were 67 percent of the population and owned 93 percent of the land.
For Israelis, there is less concern with justice and honor and much more focus on security. They find unsettling the mixed messages Arabs show when it comes to understanding the desperation Jews felt after one-third were murdered in the Shoah and the related need for a secure Jewish state, combined with the expulsion of Jews from their long-time homes in many Arab lands after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
At the heart of this conflict are the emotional and visceral wounds both sides feel. The Vietnamese pacifist Thich Hhat Hanh would recommend that each turns to the other and says: “I know that you suffer. I have not understood enough of your difficulties and suffering. It's not our intention to make you suffer more. It is the opposite. We don't want you to suffer. But we don't know what to do and we might do the wrong thing if you don't help us to understand. So please tell us about your difficulties. I'm eager to learn, to understand.”
If you can’t imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas saying that, then you have a glimpse into why more than 20 years of talks, and a lot of investment by different US Administrations, have gone nowhere. The stated “core issues” are important and necessary for reaching an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, but there are other vital cultural, psychological and emotional dynamics percolating below the surface that it would be wise to finally address.
— The author teaches Conflict Resolution at Bennington College, Vermont, USA.