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Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Power of Symbols

Food for thought:

Scott Atran, an anthropologist, and Jeremy Ginges, a psychology professor, co-authored an article in today's Times about their research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They surveyed some 4,000 residents of this volatile area between 2004 and 2008, and they made some interesting discoveries about what drives the continuing conflict--or, to be more precise, about what each side sees as possible ways forward in resolving the conflict.

Basically, they found that it all comes down to symbolism.  That is, what the international community sees as common-sense proposals (e.g., Israel pulls back to its pre-1967 borders and Palestinians give up their "right of return" to Israel) are often met with skepticism by the parties involved.  When these proposals are "sweetened" with hypothetical inducements (e.g, international financial support for a nascent Palestinian state), the parties feel insulted.  But when what would seem to be purely symbolic gestures were proposed, the parties were often intrigued.  For example, a prominent Hamas member rejected the "common-sense" suggestion and the financial rewards, but he admitted a possible starting point of negotiations if Israel would simply make a formal apology to those displaced by the country's creation in 1948.  Similarly, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no one's idea of a big softie, said that a major first step toward negotiations and agreements would be Hamas simply acknowledging Israel's "right to exist."

Now, that last one sounds a bit more than purely symbolic: A fair question would be how a country could negotiate with another country that refuses to acknowledge such an existential right.  Still, one assumes that Israel is, on the whole, secure enough in its reality that it puts little stock in Hamas's failure to recognize this right.  So while such an acknowledgment might be difficult for hardline militants to make, Israel knows it really, in and of itself, means nothing.  And yet THAT was what got Netanyahu thinking about peace.

So here we have two no-cost first steps that both sides could take that would anger no one but the most fringe elements on either side.  Sounds good.  Let's do it.

But it can't be that simple.  For one thing, just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a political party is only as stable as its least stable members.  Remember, it wasn't an Arab terrorist who killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; it was a fanatical right-wing Israeli angered at Rabin's moves towards peace.  And it was Islamic terrorists who killed Anwar Sadat for making peace with the Zionist enemy.

The reason these symbolic gestures are so hard to make--and so valued by the warring parties--is that they suggest that the fanatical elements can be brought under control.  The "common sense" solutions are unattractive because neither side believes the other HAS any common sense.  And while that's not true, the problem is that the ones who DO lack common sense--Hamas terrorists, ultra-religious Zionists--who would probably not agree to take even symbolic steps--are the ones who can hijack the process.

So, is this realization of the essentially easy "appeasement" of the hardliners cause for optimism?  Or is it a sign of the basic futility of the situation?

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