Last updated: May 6, 2013
Alon Ben-Meir: The role of psychological resistance

"The paradox here is that majorities on both sides do seek and want peace"

The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that after 65 years of mutual violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved even when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, it is the psychological dimension of the conflict which directly impacts every conflicting issue and makes it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution. This is the first of six articles.

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On the surface, the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems illogical and unsettling. After all, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians realize the inevitability of coexistence and presumably understand the general parameters of a negotiated peace agreement: a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with some land swaps, Jerusalem would remain a united city (but a capital of two states), and the vast majority of Palestinian refugees would be compensated or resettled in the newly-created Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These fundamental imperatives, coupled with appropriate security guarantees for Israel, represent what was on the negotiating table in 2000 at Camp David and in 2008/2009 in Jerusalem and Ramallah, with each round coming closer to finalizing an agreement yet ultimately failing to do so. The question is: why?

The answer lies far beyond the political concessions on the ground and is deeply embedded in the psychological dimension of the conflict, which impacts every conflicting issue between the two parties. This dimension is at play here: biased and selective perceptions, reinforced by historical experience, 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, to resolve the issues of perception--a tall order given the current environment that buttresses rather than ameliorates 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” (1927), 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 its verification.” An illusion then is not necessarily an error, unlike a delusion – that is, illusions “need not necessarily be false… unrealizable or in contradiction to reality.” 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, in 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. What are some of these illusions, or pipe-dreams, as the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill would call them? Following O’Neill, we can distinguish between pipe-dreams of yesterday and pipe-dreams of tomorrow. For example, the belief shared by many Israelis that they have a biblical right to the land (the ancient biblical lands of Judea and Samaria) and that God gave the Jews this land for all time is undoubtedly an illusion or a pipe-dream of yesterday. It is not affirmed because there is any real evidence for it, 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 is a pipe-dream of tomorrow. It is important to note how these illusions sustain and reinforce one another, and constitute a psychological barrier which is that much more impervious to critical reflection. Israel’s illusions have served to create the logic for occupation, ultimately perpetuating the dehumanization of the Palestinians.

The Palestinians, for their part, are not without their own illusions. They believe, for example, that God has reserved the land for them, and appeal to the fact that they had inhabited the land for centuries. The presence of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem attest to their unmitigated historical and religious affinity to the Holy City. They also cling to the idea that they will someday return to the land of their forebears, as they have and continue to insist on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, even though this has become a virtual impossibility. The Palestinians cling to their pipe-dreams of yesterday and tomorrow just as blindly and desperately as the Israelis, which leads to resistance to and fear of change.

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This has contributed to making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both chronic and intractable, as the various illusions are continuously and consciously nurtured by the daily encounters between the two sides. It would thus appear that the psychological concept of resistance to change is extremely relevant as well. First, a distinction is needed between resistance to persuasion, which is conscious and deliberate, and inner unconscious resistance to change. In his essay, “The Psychological Dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: the Role of Psychological Resistance,” David Rabinowitz, one of Israel’s leading psychiatrists, observes that an important function of unconscious resistance is that it is protective in nature.

In seeking bridging concepts that could link between the domains of psychology and politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could be proposed that a collective mutual resistance to change protects a vulnerable identity. Compared to the stable and mature political identities of the American, British and French nations, the political identities of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples are, in a way, in their adolescence. Identities in this setting are more vulnerable, and the protagonists are naturally more defensive and resistant to change. By its very nature, the players must find it difficult (if not impossible) to articulate this publically, as to do so is to admit to this vulnerability.

The concept of psychological resistance to change may well affect the political setting in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular; it is closely connected to perceptions at many levels. Indeed, the psychological resistance provides protection for vulnerable identity formation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is this mindset, strengthened by historical experiences, which transcends the more than nine decades since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began. The individuals and groups, Israelis and Palestinians alike, have and continue to interpret the nature of the discord between them as “you versus me” in a prejudiced and selective way. In turn, this has stifled any new information and enabled the continuing resistance to change, which could shed new light on the nature and the substance of the conflict and help advance the peace process.

The concept of unconscious resistance to change in this setting links well to the view of perceptions driving the polarization in the conflict. Historical experience, which formulates perceptions, serves among other things to enhance the sense of identity of “who we really are,” a formative collective assumption that sits at the bedrock of both key players and drives functional and dysfunctional behavior. As Rabinowitz puts it, “the central benefit of this powerful unconscious resistance to change provides is the protection of a relatively vulnerable core identity (primary gains). Secondary gains, however, are essentially the side-effects of the chronic polarization of this conflict: powerful allies offering material and political support (the US’ support of Israel and moderate Palestinians verses Iran’s support for Palestinian militants such as Hamas), engaging in alluring narratives, public attention and useful alliances etc.”

In principle, such a mindset prevents either side from entertaining new ideas that might lead to compromises for a peaceful solution. The paradox here is that majorities on both sides do seek and want peace, knowing full well that this would require significant concessions, but are unable to reconcile the required concessions with imbedded perceptions that have precluded these compromises as a result of resistance to change.

Thus, to mitigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must first carefully look into the various elements that inform the psychological dimension of the conflict, and discuss how they impact the relationship between the two sides and what it would take to alleviate these psychological impediments as prerequisites to finding a solution.

The next article will address how historical experiences shape and reinforce current perception.

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