Understanding the Arab Israeli Conflict
By (Prof.) Steven Plaut,
One of the most common melodies heard these days from the Israeli
press is the claim that "Netanyahu is negotiating with himself".
By this they mean to say that they believe Netanyahu has adopted
positions so extreme that there is no basis at all for negotiations with
the Arabs, and so he ends up negotiating with himself alone.
Negotiations that can lead nowhere.
University of California
Never mind that the press would be hard pressed to explain how
exactly Netanyahu's positions differ in substance from those of Labor
before him (alas).
Nevertheless, the notion of "negotiating with oneself" has an
intriguing set of meanings in the Middle East, although not what the
press has in mind.
The problem is this. Much of the history of the Middle East
conflict can be best understood if one recalls that people have a
tendency to project their own self-image upon the other. In fact many
events in the Middle East stem from precisely this projection, this
In 1948-49 the Arabs knew that if they would conquer any Jewish
areas in the land of Israel, they would massacre the civilian
inhabitants, and when given half a chance to do so - this is precisely
what they did (in previous riots they massacred the Jewish population). Naturally, they projected their own self-image upon the
Jews, and assumed the Jews would do the same if the roles were reversed.
For 50 years people have been debating the "causes" of the Palestinian
refugee outflow, but the true cause is obvious and simple. The Arabs
expected the Jews to behave like Arabs. They fled the areas of
hostility because they expected victorious Jews to massacre them in Arab
style. Thus was begotten the refugee exodus. No, the Palestinians
were not expelled en masse by the Jews, and no they did not leave
because their leaders told them to leave (the two accepted explanations
by the anti-Zionists and the Zionists, respectively). They left
because they projected their self-image on to the other.
The Jews of course had the same projection problem. They assumed
that economic/educational/health/political advances and prosperity and
freedom would make the Arabs peaceful, moderate and tolerant; for the
simple reason that if they were in Arab shoes this is precisely how they
would react. Jews always yearned for mere normality and acceptance,
for economic and educational opportunity. When granted, Jews were
content. Surely, they expected, Arabs would react in the same way.
They were wrong.
In 1967, again the Arabs projected their self-image upon the Jews,
and expected to be massacred or mistreated by the conquering Israeli
army. It took them a generation to learn that their fears were
unfounded and that they could in fact riot and murder with
near-impugnity. It took that long to overcome their tendency to project
their self-image onto the Jews. The result of their realizing their
earlier error was led to the intifada.
The Jews have always looked at political conflict as a matter of
pragmatism, where solutions involve promoting economic interest.
Israelis are pragamatic and improvisers, if nothing else. Jews think
about politics in terms of Homo Economicus, where man pursues economic
interests. Given a territorial compromise that would allow Jews to
pursue their personal interests, most Jews would welcome it. Land is
secondary. Israeli Jews want their own state and to be left in peace
and to be comfortable economically. And borders that would allow them
to do this would be welcomed by most Jews. (The anti-Oslo opponents do
not put land above peace; they simply do not believe that any set of
borders will have this result.)
Israeli Jews then took this self-image and projected it upon the
Arabs. Surely, they reasoned, Arabs want the same things as we do.
They want to be left alone and pursue economic comfort. They surely
must be willing to compromise because we are. They surely put peace
and comfort ahead of nationalism or territory because we do.
The result of this non-sequitur was Oslo. Oslo is based on the
presumption that Arabs are Jews, that Arabs behave like Jews, that Arabs
have the same agenda as Jews. And like Jews, when offered their own
mini-state and territorial compromise, Oslo promoters fully expected the
Judeoarabs to grab it. They would accept reduced territory. They
would live and let live because this is how Jews would behave in their
places. They would put peace above land because that is the Jewish
order of priorities. They would renounce violence and xenophobia once
they received a state and territory because that is how reasonable Jews
would behave in their places.
In other words, Oslo is based upon the premise that the Arabs with
whom Israel must carry out negotiations are Jews and not Arabs. And in
this sense Oslo is quintessentially about negotiating with oneself.
The problem of course is that Arabs are not Jews. Arabs are
Arabs. Arabs do not consider peace to be of higher value than the
liberation of Palestine and its ethnic cleansing of Jews. Arabs do not
think territorial compromise should be the basis for relations with
others. Arabs do not think economic interests come before all else.
Arabs do not think personal comfort and democratic freedoms are the
highest priority, and should supercede territorial ambition. Arabs do
not believe in multicultural respect and good sportsmanship and
fair-is-fair when dealing with Jews (or other non-Arabs). The PLO is
not an English cricket team. Syria is not Belgium.
And that, in short, is why Oslo has failed and cannot possibly
succeed. And the sooner the Israeli press, the Labor Party
leaders, the academic tenured reds, and the self-hating media in
Israel realize that they have been negotiating with themselves since the
start of Oslo, the safer the Jews of this planet will be.
Steven Plaut teaches business and the University of Haifa and at the University of California.
from theJune 1998Edition of the Jewish Magazine