Reinvigorating the Two-State Vision Could Start Reversing Anti-Peace Attitudes
by Ori Nir
There have always been two kinds of barriers to Israeli-Palestinian peace. One set of obstacles was the so-called final status issues, the matters that Israeli and Palestinian representatives attempted to iron out around the negotiating table. These are questions such as borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees.
The other set of impediments is public attitudes: the emotional, psychological, and ideological perspectives
of the Israeli and Palestinian publics, which often block the way to the negotiating table and thwart
Ever since the Israeli-Palestinian peace process stalled and then came to a complete halt under Benjamin Netanyahu, negative attitudes mushroomed. They typically do when there is no political horizon.
After the events of October 7th and during the four months that followed, these attitudinal characteristics of the conflict have become so pervasive that without understanding them and their intensity, it is impossible to comprehend the dynamics of the conflict.
First, it is crucial to understand the depth of the trauma on both sides and what this current trauma evokes for both Israelis and Palestinians. Many refer to the Israeli and Palestinian societies as being post-traumatic. That’s a misnomer. Both societies have never evolved to become “post.” Both societies still live their respective traumas of the 1940s – the Holocaust for Israelis, and the Nakba for Palestinians.
Not only do both societies still live their traumas so many years later, but they nurture them to serve their national narratives and to further their commitment to their national struggles. The events of the past four months took both Israelis and Palestinians back to their foundational traumas.
Right after October 7th, Israelis spoke about Hamas (and all Palestinians) as Nazis, and about October 7th as a second Holocaust. For Israelis, the experience of standing defenseless before pure evil, snatched from their beds on a holiday morning to be murdered on the spot or taken away by hateful enemies, evoked the Holocaust. How could it have not? And naturally, the collective Israeli reaction to the horror was a contemporary iteration of “never again.”Israelis rushed to arm themselves. Many cheered as the IDF flattened Gaza. Chilling as it may be, the devastation of Gaza for Israelis is a way of overcoming the sense of humiliation caused by October 7th, a sense of humiliation that has always been associated with the Holocaust, too. National independence and a strong army are the ultimate Zionist expression of “never again,” and these collapsed as guerillas under Israeli occupation occupied southern Israel for half a day.
For Palestinians, the carnage, devastation, and dispossession of the past four months are perceived as a second Nakba. The calamity in Gaza, in some ways, is of Nakba proportions. In fact, more Palestinians have been killed in the past 130 days than during the 1948 war. For Palestinians, the fear that the “Zionist enemy” is now planning to deport Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, maybe as a prelude to dislodging Palestinians from the West Bank, is a real threat, not an imaginary conspiracy theory. Add to that the fact that almost all of the Gaza population (80%) are refugees or their descendants, for whom the Nakba is a core narrative and a defining identity, and the fact that many of them have already been internally displaced during past military rounds.
You cannot comprehend the current dynamics of the conflict without understanding the depth of the current traumas of both Israelis and Palestinians and the direct relationship of these traumas to the foundational traumas of both peoples.
You also cannot understand the dynamics of the conflict without comprehending the role that vengeance plays in the cruel relationship between the two communities.
For years, the dynamic in which both sides use violence in the context of the conflict is chiefly a matter of vengeance. Israelis may talk about retaliation or deterrence. Palestinians may talk about resistance. But at its core, the violent nature of the conflict has in recent years become a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge.
On the Israeli side, we witnessed the craving for revenge every day during the past four months. Israeli politicians talk about it, as do Israeli soldiers in Gaza. It started with Netanyahu shortly after October 7th, vowing to “ take revenge forcefully for this black day” and continued with senior IDF officers briefing the troops before entering Gaza. In video clips from Gaza, soldiers “dedicated” the blowing up of structures to people killed on October 7th or to their fallen comrades. Yearning for revenge was all over social media and even mainstream media.
Vengeance is a human sentiment. Considering the atrocities of October 7th and the pain they caused, it is natural, yet chilling to realize that Israelis wish to inflict counter-pain on Palestinians. Further chilling is that they have been making little distinction - if at all – between the perpetrators of October 7th and civilians.
On the Palestinian side, obviously, there is built-up vengeance that is as old as the confrontation between the two national movements, which has intensified under Israeli occupation since 1967. In the Gaza Strip, that sense of vengeance has been powerfully brewing since 2007 under Israel’s siege and following numerous deadly Israeli air raids. One can just imagine the sense of vengeance generated by Israel’s killing of one percent of all Gazans during the current war. That vengeance, as has always been the case, will be directed at both Israeli soldiers and civilians.
While vengeance is not a new characteristic of the conflict, the current crisis has brought it to an intensity and severity never seen before. In order to comprehend the current and future dynamic of the conflict, one must consider the depth and intensity of reciprocal vengeance between Israelis and Palestinians.
Another important characteristic to consider is the zero-sum approach to the conflict, on both sides. In the absence of a peace process and with no tangible hope for peace based on mutual compromise, the conflict is perceived by both Israelis and Palestinians as a zero-sum game.
Over the past 25 years, the win-win paradigm of Oslo, Camp David, and Annapolis, the perception that Israelis and Palestinians could reach a compromise formula that would benefit both, that the two peoples could live in peace side by side and accommodate each other’s national aspirations, has given way to a zero-sum approach.
Events in the past four months have solidified the perception, on both sides, that compromise is impossible, that concessions to the other side are a net loss for your own, that the other side wishes to annihilate you, and that therefore “it’s either us or them.” The win-win paradigm, which reigned supreme in the 1990s, today exists only on the margins of both societies. That trend too is crucial for comprehending where the conflict is today.
Another dynamic that has radically escalated in the past four months is the conviction – on both sides – that the other side only responds to violence. This notion, among other motivations, fueled the brutal attacks by Hamas and others on October 7th. It also fueled the harsh Israeli retaliation. Having documented this conflict for more than 40 years, I have heard Israelis and Palestinians using almost identical language to express the idea that the other side understands only the language of force. Clearly, this notion has solidified during this dark winter of 2023-2024. Both sides will contend that the events of the past four months validate this truism.
Reversing such deeply seated attitudes is hard. It requires time and leadership as well as a credible path toward settling the conflict. None of these exist at the moment.
But the Biden administration’s attempt to create the latter, to chart a much-needed political horizon by pivoting from two-state lip service to proactively pursuing the creation of a Palestinian state, is a welcome policy shift.
Sure, it’s little and it’s late. And it’s not enough to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table and to generate support among the two publics for peace talks. But you have to start somewhere, sometime. If not now, given what we have experienced in the past four months, then when?
The Biden administration was wrong to not adopt a proactive, forward-leaning posture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict early on. It is now changing course. For that, it deserves appreciation and gratitude, as well as encouragement to redouble its efforts and not let go of its newfound initiative and courage.