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Middle East Peace Talks: A War of Imaginations

The conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis has gone on for far too long. It seems to be intractable given the behavior of the leaders throughout the history of the conflict. Yet, I would argue that it is the very identity of the groups involved that drives the conflict. Over the many years, each side has effectively dehumanized the other. If peace is somehow achieved, will violence magically disappear as well?

First of all, it seems the two-state solution is dead and has been for a very long time (maybe it never was). Each side blames the other 1) for putting forward bad plans or 2) rejecting those plans altogether.

This particular conflict is not very different than others. It is a war like any other war: there are two sides that have conflicting geopolitical interests. The conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s was similar in that it depended on the demonization of the other. These conflicts rest on two inter-related factors that are not physical or material, but cognitive and psychological. These wars have always been about competing mental pictures of ideal control over a physical space.

These mental pictures, whether the establishment of a Jewish homeland or a Palestinian one, lend themselves to the idealization of the mental picture because of past, present and future violence. Actors fight and kill for that mental picture. These mental pictures, whether the idealized notion of Zionism or Palestinian nationhood, cause people to act and react to defend their imaginations. To be denied this mental picture, this romanticized dream, is altogether frustrating and emboldens violence.

Two inter-related factors relate to these two conflicting images as they manufacture socialized identities. The first is the existential nature of conflicting identities. Understandings of self and other is fundamentally driven by the mental picture. The Palestinians are denied their homeland by the Israelis who, in turn, are concerned about defending their homeland.

The glorification of the heroes of conflict on either side adds to the fire. In other words, the mental picture imagined by the identities of the groups involved are driven by the leaders selected because of their heroic actions. This is the second factor driving these identities. The heroes of conflict are those who make people feel safe by killing the other. These heroes receive top honors. One can become the Prime Minister of Israel for acts of violence like Ehud Barack and his role in the Black September reprisals. He may have killed civilians among the accused.

Or, one can be like Yasser Arafat, a known planner of terrorist acts. He is honored by current moderate leaders of the Palestinian Authority.

The leader is glorified because he or she served to protect the mental picture, the imagined reality that does not feed nor protect the most vulnerable, but does violence on their right to live happy lives the way they choose.

It is important to note that violence does not simply denote a physical act. Violence can be considered as limiting freedom of choice and movement. On one hand, Israelis try to limit the choice and movement of Palestinians through the building of walls and the establishment of check-points. The recent revoking of travel visas for the attack in Tel Aviv is a form of collective punishment; guilt is placed upon the vast majority without trial. On the other side, suicide-bombings and knife attacks hope to establish fear to again limit the freedom of movement of Israelis. This war is not to kill, but to make actors behave abnormally. This is part of a new construction of power.

Both sides wield significant power. Power in our world supposedly makes an actor legitimate. Power, in principle, gives people the right to speak and be recognized or at least this is what we imagine. Power aims to defend the mental picture, but it is safe to say it has altogether been forgotten, pounded out of memory by physical and other forms of violence. While the mental picture hopes to protect people, violent acts are only answered by further violence; it’s a language after all.

Israel exists to protect Jewish people from violence by protecting self-determination. If Israel is attacked then that means the Jewish people are being attacked. This then requires Israel to strike back; it is the only option in the minds of the Israeli leadership. The mental picture of Israel as imagined requires such a forceful reaction. To do otherwise would be a denial of the mental picture which forces an existential choice upon Israel and, as a result, the Jewish people. The same applies to the Palestinian people who must act regardless of their altogether weaker material position. Actually, their weakened material position may require them to communicate their desire to be recognized as legitimate political actors. This may explain terrorism as a device which seeks recognition as irrational and counter-productive as it may be received by Israel and the international community.

In the end, it is not the land that must be shared but each actor’s mental image. It is the idealism of actors that is at fault. Civilians on either side are the biggest losers because of their inflexible imagination. No amount of force and power can curb reprisal, only the surrender of power. The unattainable impracticality of these imaginations have set back the entire region, and the world, for almost 100 years. To say so is treason, but peace has always been a treasonous act.