Oslo and the Arab Israeli Conflict

    June 1998         
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Opinion & Society

Understanding the Arab Israeli Conflict

By (Prof.) Steven Plaut,
University of California

  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.

  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 psychological delusion.

  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

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