WASHINGTON, DC: In 1997, at a time when I travelled frequently from Israel, where I was living, to Jordan, I was invited to give a talk to the Amman World Affairs Council, composed of distinguished, educated and cosmopolitan retired judges, ambassadors and other prominent Jordanians.
I chose as my topic “Israeli fears because then, as now, I was convinced that fear is perhaps the most important underlying – and underrated – reason for the intractability of the conflict. The audience was not pleased. One member told me angrily, “You’re equating the oppressors with the oppressed!
Indeed I was, which largely explains the reason this subject is so difficult for both sides. Both sides cherish their image of the other as heartless, amoral and immune to common human feeling. This mechanism is essential to maintain the mutual perception that “force is the only thing they understand .
Moreover, the image of innocent victim is an essential component of both sides’ respective identities. Recognizing the fear on the other side calls into question the demonizing and delegitimising that both sides routinely engage in vis-à-vis the “other .
Arabs cannot square the idea that Israelis are afraid with their perception of Israel as the superpower juggernaut of the region. “How can a country with the atom bomb be fearful of us? they enquire, genuinely perplexed. Of course, nuclear weapons do little against suicide bombers, and it is not difficult to understand that Israelis are insecure facing an Arab world that outnumbers them 50 to 1 and a Muslim world where the ratio is more like 200 to 1.
Israelis are raised on interlocking Israeli and Jewish narratives which retell Jewish suffering over two millennia, and which emphasize that Israel’s actions are rooted in unavoidable self-defence against enemies determined to destroy them individually and collectively. And indeed, in every generation, as Jewish texts teach, it seems that one nation or another announces its determination to do so, a determination generalized by many Jews and Israelis to the whole Arab/Muslim world, or even to the rest of humanity.
Of course, both sides readily ascribe cowardice to the other side, but that is part of the delegitimation process, not an emotion that produces empathy.
Preventing one’s own side from acknowledging the fear of the other and beginning a process of empathising with the other side is integral to the continuation of the conflict. Otherwise the other’s narrative could be construed as legitimate. If you accept that the other side has genuine reason to fear you, its actions can begin to be comprehensible in human and moral terms.
Partisans and leaders on both sides understand correctly that continuing down this path necessarily involves accepting that your own side bears considerable responsibility for the conflict from its very beginnings, and that therefore the other side may have good reasons for its conduct. Such a process is seen as dangerous to morale and national unity, diminishing the ultimate and irreducible rightness of one’s own cause.
Of course, there are real issues being fought over, including land, self-determination, national existence, holy sites, resources, etc. And of course, the power disparities are immense. The more powerful Israel becomes, the more it stands to lose and the more insecure Israelis seem to be. This insecurity is never resolved for long by new weapons systems or greater prosperity. Likewise, of course, every partial setback, such as the 2006 Lebanon War, provokes fears that deterrence, i.e., the other side’s fear of Israel, has been fatally compromised.
Palestinians, for whom humiliation is often worse than death, distinguish between their victimization, which they exhibit proudly, and their own fears, which are hidden by a public bravado. This bravado is taken as reality by Israelis, who thus redouble their efforts to instill a proper respect (i.e., fear) of Israel, which they vainly hope will keep Palestinian attacks at bay.
Thus, the mutually reinforcing fears and, even more, the denial of both the right of the other side to be afraid and the reality of its fear, has created an ever-expanding vicious circle, one that can only be addressed indirectly by agreements, road maps, or external support for one’s cause. Fear breeds distrust and vice-versa.
Is this process irremediable? Of course not. But fear is insidious in that it can rarely be successfully addressed head-on. Awareness of its crucial role is essential, but we can reverse this process only once we are prepared to address the tangible issues of the conflict which underlie the fears, and by becoming aware that the other side has real issues that give rise to its own genuine fears.
Paul Scham is the Executive Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park and teaches Israel studies at the University. He has worked in Israeli/Palestinian conflict resolution and coexistence programs in both Israel and the United States for more than 20 years.