The Circular Nature of Reconciliation and the Israeli-Palestinian narratives of conflict


When Leila Shahid, Palestinian Ambassador to the European Union, visited UCL in March 2015, she asked the audience whether they knew of any peace process that lasted as long as the Israeli-Palestinian one. More than 20 years after the Oslo Accords, peace seems still a far goal and we can indeed question whether there even is a peace process. But why was post-Oslo reconciliation never achieved?

In this essay, I argue that reconciliation has an endogenous nature both as a cause and consequence of peace. On one hand, there simply never was a real post-conflict setting that allowed for the conflict psychology to reverse. However, we could also argue that the parties cannot implement the many settlements that have been reached precisely because of a lack of reconciliation.

I focus on the role of narratives in perpetuating the conflict and argue that there are, first of all, two historical narratives deeply rooted in each community. Secondly, I argue that each new event is developed around a specific discourse linked to that broader narrative. I have analyzed what I call the discourse of peace, taking place during times of agreements and hope, and the discourse of war, utilized during the manifest stages of the conflict. When there is violence, each side dehumanizes the other and victimizes the in-group. The demonization of the other side is absent in peaceful periods, but there is still deep mistrust and a sense that the out-group may not really want peace.

The many material issues affecting the lives of Israelis and Palestinians need to be addressed in negotiations and agreements. However, recognizing the other side’s rights requires some revision of one’s own narrative. This would mean that conflicts can be undone discursively through the creation of a new overarching narrative that is able to hold elements from the previous two. In practice, this has been attempted through interactive conflict resolution, the practice that brings people from the two communities together to learn about each others’ perspectives in an environment of equality.

Interactive conflict resolution has been praised, among other things, for having created the right environment for the Oslo accords, but it hasn’t generated a new narrative for resolution yet, which provides us with some lessons. Firstly, we should examine whether parties whose relationship involves historical disagreements can actually solve the conflict without reconciliation.

Secondly, for as long as both sides understand that history is written by the victors, the temptation to “win” and continue to negate the other’s rights may have room in the conflict. It is here that the international community can contribute the most by showing the unfeasibility of this option.

Thirdly, can we rely on political leaders to responsibly encourage mutual understanding considering their political survival often thrives in a climate of fear? The current unlikeliness of this scenario strengthens support for the bottom-up approach in which civil society creates an atmosphere that ends up pressuring politicians into the negotiating table.

Finally, it is important to continue to renew the narrative on the peace process itself. The idea of an ongoing peace process is as alive in the collective imaginary of the world as the idea of war is alive in Israel and Palestine. In a way, it prevents the international community from acknowledging the extent to which the conflict is still alive, turning the peace process narrative into an obstacle to peace itself.

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