Needed: A new cognitive road map for peace

The internationally sponsored “road map” to peace between Palestinians and Israelis will fail if it doesn’t confront the important psychological dimension of peacemaking. And yet this vital on-ramp is not even mentioned in a plan destined to bring genuine peace to the troubled Middle East.

Perusing the Middle East map today, we find a region strewn with populations traumatized by decades, if not centuries, of suffering. Unless they are helped in overcoming their traumas, all talk of peace that does not begin with a search for justice and an honest acknowledgement of past wrongs is a waste of time.

The Palestinians have suffered one of the most traumatic events in the history of the contemporary Middle East. And it is not a single, acute trauma, but one lived and relived each day. They have paid the price for Western European, then Israeli and Arab, and now American hypocrisy. All the evils of the world seem to have been projected onto this people, to better justify the appalling treatment they have endured for the past 55 years.

The Palestinians are also traumatized from within. They lack a viable leadership and their elite has lost its bearings, roots and vision. Both intellectually and politically, the Palestinians are in a dangerous state of regression and mental depression, wandering aimlessly in a darkness partly of their own making. To make their way out of this impasse, they will have to engage in self-criticism and begin to “grow a new leadership.”

Ironically, despite their political triumphs, Israeli Jews are also in a state of trauma. They and their state are powerful militarily, but vulnerable psychologically. A nation that has gone through pogroms and discrimination in the West now seems to be projecting its traumas, fears, and anger onto the Palestinians. What makes a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians so impossible now is the marked sense of superiority most Israelis feel toward the Palestinians and Arabs in general.

Whether intended or not, Zionism under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is both bigoted and brutal. It also violates a plethora of international laws and UN resolutions. For real peace to develop between Israelis and Palestinians there must first be a power shift. As long as one party, in this case Israel, feels that power is the only language Palestinians can understand, we can forget about reconciliation.

The same goes for the Palestinians. Suicide bombings will not lead to redemption, liberation, justice or statehood, but only to deeper despair for all concerned. Bombing civilians is a crime against humanity, as are Sharon’s policies of assassinations, home demolitions, unending curfews, and the ordering of Apache helicopter attacks against crowded neighborhoods.

What are some possible psychological instruments that might buttress the road map and advance reconciliation? The Arab and Palestinian rituals of “settlement” (sulh) and “reconciliation” (musalaaha) may provide some lessons for Israelis and Palestinians.

In the settlement process, the families of the victim and the victimizer are brought into an equalizing social relationship to restore dignity and balance. Mediators first establish a truce between the two parties and then work on achieving reconciliation. In this ancient technique there are no satisfied winners and humiliated losers as in a zero-sum game.

Arab-Islamic reconciliation rituals rely on a process of acknowledgment, apology, compensation, forgiveness and reconciliation through a form of arbitration incorporating rituals and symbols. Notwithstanding the autocratic nature of Arab regimes, modified rituals of settlement and reconciliation empower the individual within his own community, contributing to the consolidation of civil society. The application of the principles of settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be easy, but in the long term could be rewarding.

There is a need for an effective guarantor of the peacemaking and reconciliation process between Palestinians and Israelis. The current guarantor, in this case the United States, must respect international consensus, respect international law and all relevant UN resolutions, demonstrate a nuanced appreciation of local histories and cultures, and engender a context of common security and equity.

In order to attain the respected status of mediators, US diplomats, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, would have to meet the above criteria. If they can, they could then encourage a “walk through history” between Palestinians and Israelis. One possibility would be to encourage Israelis, including politicians, to visit sites of Arab villages destroyed by the Israeli Army in 1948 and apologize for what was done. The Palestinians, in turn, could acknowledge the fundamental and searing role the Nazi Holocaust has played in Jewish political psychology.

The Israeli-Palestinian clergyman, Father Emile Shoufani from Nazareth, recently took a step in this direction, organizing a visit to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz by a joint Palestinian-Israeli delegation. In much the same way, Palestinian-Israeli delegations could also visit refugee camps in nascent Palestine.

Any real road map to Middle East peace must include a cognitive map of the hearts and minds of the long-suffering peoples of the region. The destination should be the alleviation and cessation of suffering and the effecting of justice, not another round of stop-gap measures designed to temporarily calm the game and gain short-term political advantage.

(Published on Saturday 5 July in the Daily Star.)

George E. Irani teaches conflict analysis and management at Royal Roads University in Canada. Laurie King-Irani teaches anthropology at the University of Victoria. They are both regular contributors to The Daily Star.