On what can make peace initiatives work

November 13, 2015
Sarah Benton

This is the first batch of articles published by Haaretz in connection with the peace conference it organised in Tel Aviv earlier this month.

1) A Peace Conference Because Someone Has to Keep the Vision Alive, Akiva Eldar introduces the peace conference and the connected Haaretz articles;
2) What Are the Real Interests Behind the Peace Industry’s Players?, Guy Rolnick, deputy publisher of the Haaretz Group, on why “the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians has been in stable equilibrium for some decades”;
3) Israel Is in National Denial Regarding Its Oppression of Palestinians, Eva Illouz writes about a subject familiar to Israeli intellectuals – states of denial and the Israeli need not to know;
4) The Fruitless Israeli-Palestinian Discourse of Master and Servant, academic Sayed Kashua worries away at why the incessant talking is so unproductive;
5) The Psychology of Maximum Submission With Minimum Force, Netta Ahituv in conversation with Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman on how Israel managed to achieve its dominance over Palestinians;
6) Why Politicians Avoid Regret at All Costs – and Can’t Make Peace, academic psychologist Dan Ariely explores the nature of regret in relation to a peace process;
7) Saudi Prince al-Faisal Tells Haaretz: Desire for Peace Exists Both in Gaza and Ramallah, partly about the Arab Peace Initiative, but Chemi Shalev presses the prince on sharia law and Islamic extremism.

Members of Women Wage Peace demonstrating in the Knesset Rose Garden in Jerusalem, March 4, 2015. Photo courtesy of Women Wage Peace

A Peace Conference Because Someone Has to Keep the Vision Alive

Never doubt that the day will eventually come when peace becomes a reality, not a dream.

Akiva Eldar, Haaretz
November 10, 2015

“You want to hold a peace conference, now?” “What else do you need to happen to wake up from this peace dream?” “Do you really believe we have someone to talk to?” These stinging rebukes were typical responses I’ve been receiving in recent weeks after friends heard about my involvement in the Israel Conference on Peace.


To be honest, the same questions occasionally cross my mind, too. But they usually arise during visits to the dedicated physical therapists who got me back on my feet after a reckless Australian driver left me sprawled in the road. Overhearing the phone calls I was making about the conference, in between massaging my knee and monitoring my progress on the exercise bike, they would give me looks that mixed puzzlement and pity.

An alien eavesdropping on the conversations that sometimes developed with the young people working out with me would surely be convinced that I, too, was a creature who had landed from another planet.

These young people didn’t have the slightest idea what the “Green Line” is. Where did I come up with this story that Ariel is a “settlement”? Yes, they’d heard something about the Oslo Accords – it was a “death trap” set for us by that bastard Arafat.

It didn’t take long for people to get riled. One person spoke passionately about the parents who were murdered in front of their four children near the settlement of Itamar. Another expressed her anger at that “enemy of Israel” Gideon Levy, although she admitted she’d never read a single line he’d written in Haaretz. And no, she doesn’t care that Haaretz consistently advocates the only arrangement that will enable Israel to maintain its Jewish character and its democratic principles. And yes, they hate Arabs and love Bibi, and don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of us.

In an interview with Ayelett Shani, philosophy professor Aaron Ben-Ze’ev noted that “emotion has a bigger influence on us than intellectual statements.” To illustrate his point, the expert on emotions pointed out that most political parties don’t bother to write a platform. “Why go to all that trouble when a single emotional statement can have such a powerful effect?” he asked.

So, really, what’s the point of dozens of carefully reasoned articles about the advantages of the peace initiative, when a single theatrical silence by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a much more powerful impact? And why go to all the effort of organizing a scholarly conference on the implications of the current diplomatic deadlock for Israel’s future, when the future lies in emotion?

Worth a thousand wise words

The first peace conference, in July 2014, is remembered as the conference of the Operation Protective Edge warning siren, and for the turmoil surrounding the speech by Minister Naftali Bennett. A single red alert that sends civilians scrambling for shelters is worth a thousand wise words about the importance of peace uttered in a convention hall.

Emotionally, I’m pretty much ready to hang up my keyboard and spend the rest of my life with my family and friends, enjoying concerts, the theater and reading the dozens of books I have waiting for me on the shelf. The intellect, which outbattles my emotions, will tell me when I’ve reached the threshold.

At the end of the month, I will mark my 70th birthday and 32 years since I began writing about the conflict and the occupation, about the peace process that became “the peace process,” and about the war process, which requires no quotation marks. The reservoir of bitter disappointments is overflowing. My first articles were a requiem for the autonomy talks, which died to the sounds of the drumbeats of the first Lebanon war – sorry, I mean Operation Peace for Galilee.

I eulogized the 1987 London Agreement that Shimon Peres secretly made with Jordan’s King Hussein. I followed the first intifada, which erupted not long after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir belittled it. I covered the fruitless negotiations that were held in Washington with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation (which included only representatives from the occupied territories), and with bureaucrats from Syria and Lebanon, following the 1991 Madrid Conference.

I held back tears of joy at the signing ceremony for the 1993 Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. I held back tears of sorrow upon seeing the pictures of the children who were murdered in terror attacks, or who watched their parents killed before their eyes, which turned the agreement sour. I watched the settlements that arose and continue to arise on the agreement’s ruins, and the illegal outposts (as if a settlement could ever be legal), and the crazed Jewish terrorism that grew out of them and the authorities’ incompetence in dealing with it.
I believed that Ehud Barak would return from Camp David hand in hand with Yasser Arafat in 2000, and I was horrified when the second intifada launched a new wave of bloodshed. The past 15 years have made a long list of contributions to the history of the conflict: the Second Lebanon War on the northern front in 2006; and Operations Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014) on the southern front. In Jerusalem we have what’s been termed the “stone terror” and “knife terror.” And the only thing keeping Oslo alive is the money pipeline from the donor countries to the Palestinian Authority.

These last few years, casual conversations with friends have become a source of frustration. Lectures before dwindling audiences who are willing to hear about “the conflict” have become a depressing experience. Before my eyes, the hope for peace has retreated in the face of the despair of “there is no partner.”

But then, in these tough moments, my wife, Dorit, reminds me of the days when the use of the phrase “Palestinian people” caused us to be perceived as eccentrics at best and traitors at worst. Very few people, like Uri Avnery, spoke about a “Palestinian state,” and meeting with Palestinians was a criminal offense that landed Abie Nathan in prison in the 1980s. Historic processes last for many decades, she says. The change is creeping along slowly, but it will come.

Had the Shin Bet security service guarded Yitzhak Rabin – who left us 20 years ago – the way it now keeps an eye on the current prime minister, perhaps Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu would have been spending their whole lives poolside in Caesarea.

So yes, a peace conference – because someone has to blow on the embers to keep the vision of peace burning. Someone has to believe that the day is coming when we will emerge from this state of stagnation. To believe intellectually and, yes, emotionally, too. To those who scoff, “When will you understand that this peace thing is over?” I ask, “How much more blood needs to be spilled before you understand that doing nothing is a recipe for disaster? Until when?”

The writer is CEO of the Israel Conference on Peace and a political columnist for Al־Monitor.

At the official talks in 2013: U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, left, sits across from negotiators Isaac Molho, Tzipi Livni, Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh. Photo by AP

What Are the Real Interests Behind the Peace Industry’s Players?

Those who wish to advance the peace process should ask whether a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves risks that neither side is willing to take.

By Guy Rolnik, Haaretz
November 12, 2015

If you are reading Haaretz’s Peace Supplement and have actually reached this article, it’s likely that you have taken a more or less active part in one of the initiatives to advance the peace process. You don’t have to be on the dovish or left side of the political map: Dialogues and initiatives on a settlement, on the process itself, an understanding, possible solutions – these comprise a thriving industry encompassing nearly the whole political spectrum in Israel, the United States and Europe.

There are people who sign petitions, write Internet comments and go to parlor meetings and lectures, and many who take part in workshops and conferences. The industry of NGOs and research institutes whose mandate is to advance the peace process and organize encounters between Israelis and Palestinians is vibrant; it has been flourishing for more than 20 years. Donors with excellent intentions from the United States – mainly wealthy Jews – and Europe – mainly public foundations – do not tire of injecting money into the industry. Nor is there any shortage of peace promoters in Israel, too. The peace process creates and attracts entrepreneurs, almost like the startup nation does. Meetings of businessmen, academics, politicians, diplomats, students, youth – there is no category in the market that is not addressed by NGOs, foundations and ardent promoters.

In contrast to high-tech entrepreneurship, in which one out of 10 investments is successful, there have been as yet no successes in the peace process. In fact, in recent years we seem to be mostly regressing. Yet amazingly – and this should perhaps give us pause – entrepreneurs and activists in this realm are proceeding with exactly the same approaches, ideas and methods.


Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I would argue that a large proportion of the people involved in these activities are neither insane, off the wall nor “extremists”: They know that the result will not be different.

The continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians has been in stable equilibrium for some decades. Governments come and go, generations pass, and the Middle East today looks dramatically different from the way it did a decade ago, certainly from the way it did in the 1970s, the first decade of the occupation.

A convenient equilibrium?

The most important question that most of the players in the peace or war industry fail to place at the top of the agenda is this: Who are the truly dominant players in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab world, the United States, and among all the others involved in the peace process? The next unasked question is: Why is the present equilibrium convenient for them, and why would upsetting that equilibrium pose a threat or expose them to risks they are unwilling to take?

Two years ago, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists invited me to “talks” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Most of the activists from both the left and the right were students of Prof. Ronald Heifetz, for the past three decades one of the leading, and most riveting, lecturers in the United States on the subject of public leadership.

I was very enthusiastic, and suggested that they consider focusing on the “peace” talks they were holding about Heifetz’s ideas, under Harvard’s aegis. I suggested they identify the true players – both open and hidden – in the conflict, and then try to dig deep and understand why the present equilibrium might suit those players. They should ask why a disruption of that equilibrium would threaten the players’ social or economic status and their loyalties to their reference group or to their communities of origin. This would not be a discussion about security arrangements, land swaps, demilitarization or the type of cohabitation Israelis and Palestinians might enjoy after a settlement. In this discussion, we would be trying to understand the perspectives of all the players in the conflict: why they might fear change, and how any such change would threaten the things they consider important.

Naturally, such a discussion would force Palestinians and Israelis to look in the mirror – at themselves, not at the other side. They would have to look at the socioeconomic structure within their own community. They would have to lay bare the perspectives, fears, loyalties and vested interests of the strong, dominant groups within the Israeli and Palestinian societies as well as those in the Arab world and among the relevant western powers. This could raise questions about the different perspectives of the economic and social elites, compared to weaker groups in these societies.

My Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors saw immediately where this would lead. The moment we start to examine the social and economic structure of the societies involved in the conflict, we will find that beneath the clichés through which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been conducted in recent decades lies a far greater complexity relating to the interests and perspectives of each player. The leaders who meet at the White House every few months are not the true players in this conflict; they are in place, they espouse their approaches, they pull in particular directions because there are many groups in the population who are pushing them to take the positions they hold.

My suggestion was not accepted; both the Palestinians and the Israelis rejected it immediately. My Palestinian friends explained to me in private conversations that there was no chance they would be able to talk openly about the different interests that exist within Palestinian society. My Israeli friends, too, were appalled at the idea that we would have to probe deeply into the guts of Israeli society and reflect on the question of the risks and fears that different segments of that society see looming if the existing equilibrium is disturbed.

I took my leave of them and wished them well. We will meet again and conduct that conversation, because the day is fast approaching when the present equilibrium, which preserves the conflict and the occupation, will exact too high a price.

The writer is deputy publisher of the Haaretz Group and founding editor of TheMarker.

Palestinians use a ladder to climb over the separation barrier with Israel in al-Ram, north of Jerusalem. June 19, 2015. Photo by AP

Israel Is in National Denial Regarding Its Oppression of Palestinians

Israel has exhibited three stages of denial in its treatment of 
the Palestinians since the formation of the state in 1948, 
allowing it to stay blind to its status as an occupying power.

By Eva Illouz, Haaretz
November 11, 2015

In the long and fascinating list of indignities that can befall the human spirit (such as crippling anxiety and depression, addiction, sadism), the most bewildering is also the one that seems the most harmless: denial.

Denial is the mind’s capacity to block out, forget, push aside and minimize information that is uncomfortable or painful to the self. Psychoanalysis was the first to pay systematic attention to denial and viewed it as a fundamental strategy to cope with the world when it threatens the self. Sigmund Freud called it a “defence mechanism”: A memory that, for example, undermines the love for a parent will often be erased from our consciousness. Psychoanalysis, then, views denial with a kind of intellectual benevolence: if it is involuntary and unconscious, and if it is a form of self-protection, it is not morally reprehensible.


But denial is not only the unconscious and harmless mechanism of self-defence against threats to the self. Denial is also the semi-conscious, semi-deliberate strategy to ignore what we do not want to see about ourselves and the world. It is a relationship we have with ourselves, in which we hide information through strategies that are at once deliberate and nonconscious. In this sense, denial is a moral action.

Take the example of the man who smokes and knows that “smoking kills” because he reads this every day on the pack of cigarettes he buys. This man has no particular desire to die. In fact, he lives a good life and values his life. He enjoys cigarettes because he enjoys life. He knows cigarettes kill, and yet does not know it. Every day, he renews with himself a pact of ignorance and persists in ignoring, forgetting, pushing aside what he knows. How does he do this? By telling himself different stories: he will stop smoking soon; cigarettes kill only some people and not others; he smokes less cigarettes and for less time than his friends; his life has always been a lucky one; he does a lot of sport and eats healthy food; his parents have great genes. If we could hear the silent voices of people who live with the denial of uncomfortable truths, we would hear a constant hum and buzz of self-told stories. Denial is, therefore, not a lack of knowledge, but a complex form of knowledge. This complex form of knowledge takes three forms.

One is the one psychoanalysis has discussed: an erasure of memories: “It never happened” is the proposition taken by this (non)-knowledge. It is a blank where there should have been a word.

The second form taken by denial-as-knowledge ignores the consequences of our actions, for ourselves and others. It takes the form of “X is true, but it will not happen to me.” For example, the man who ignores the fact that smoking may harm his own health and that of his children. This denial ignores the future.

And then there is a third form of denial that involves a very particular gaze and consciousness of the present, which sees something and yet fails to register its meaning and significance, fails to register its proper name, minimizes it and says to itself, “I did not see anything; I don’t know anything.” Seeing without registering or naming what they see is the strategy of eyes that see evil without seeing it. This is, for example, the woman who is the daily witness of her husband’s sexual abuse of their daughter, and yet turns away her eyes, shuts her ears, continues to provide her husband with routine services of cooking, cleaning and sex. This woman is not a witness to abuse in the same way as the witness to a crime is; she witnesses a crime, but participates in it because she pushes it outside her consciousness, teaches herself to become oblivious to it, to the suffering of the child, to the criminality of her husband, and to her own failure as a human being. In the same way, myriad Polish and Ukrainian peasants who lived near concentration camps trained their eyes and minds to see nothing, smell nothing, hear nothing.

Denial is thus not only about pushing aside some traumatic memory that has been inflicted on us by a harsh world; it is a choice to actively ignore the truth in front of our eyes. Denial is the art of “fudging” reality, of turning hard facts into vague, hazy images. As in voodoo mythology, where a zombie is at once alive and dead, denial is a zombie form of knowledge, dead and alive, something we know and don’t know.

Denial is not only the property of individuals. It can be, and in fact often is, a property of groups such as families and nations. Many families can build mutual loyalty only by denying their own emotional pathology and violence. Nations similarly and typically build for themselves glorious pasts and impeccable identities through denial of the violence they perpetrated. Using Nietzsche’s words, we may say that politics is the art of determining “the boundary at which the past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present.” What to remember and what to forget is crucial to modern polities. Not by chance is Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s “1984,” in charge of rewriting history and newspaper articles: the belief in a regime of power depends on believing in its past. Such belief can be maintained only if the collective past is believed. We may say that how open, just and moral nations and countries are can be evaluated based on the degree to which, and the ways in which, they deny or acknowledge their past wrongdoings.

Some nations practice denial as a systematic policy, but we usually do not think of them as open societies. Yet I do not believe there is another way to characterize Israeli policy vis-à-vis the occupied territories. The mind-boggling, jaw-dropping claim that the State of Israel can quietly annex these territories, control the lives of 2.6 million Palestinians and still remain Jewish and democratic is denial on an uncanny scale – denial turned into grand political strategy (Palestinians and Israeli Arabs together would make up 4.3 million of the total population of Israel, a fact that would compel Jewish Israel to exercise an inhumane and unsustainable control over other human beings). The originality of the politics of the messianic right, which has been in power for more than a decade, can be defined as a politics of denial, and politics as denial on a scale rarely seen in the democratic world. However, contrary to common perceptions, I suggest that the denial that characterizes the politics of the territories could become a policy because the politics and policy inside the Green Line had already long been a politics of denial, perhaps since the inception of Zionism.

1: Denial as a blank – it never happened

How could a state so stubbornly deny the screamingly just claim of independence by Palestinians? It was easy to ignore because Israel consistently denied there were even people on the land, let alone people who were expelled from their lands. The slogan of Zionism – “A land without a people for a people without a land” – was either a conscious, cynical lie or a denial that the victims of abject European anti-Semitism could also be the perpetrators of violence, expulsion, expropriation. This denial was considerably facilitated by the initial refusal of Arab states to share Palestine and to abide by the 1947 UN vote, and made it far, far easier for early Zionists to deny their actions and to shift the burden of responsibility onto Arab nations.

Denial No. 1 – denial as suppression – takes the form of erasure, a blank. But the supreme irony of that blank is that it must be incessantly produced and reproduced by the state.

Take the so-called “Nakba Law” that passed in 2011. This law determined that any organization that receives government funding may be subject to sanctions if it funds an event that refers to Independence Day as a day of mourning (Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, is the Palestinians’ term for the formation of Israel in 1948). According to the Israel Democracy Institute, this law was aimed specifically at preventing financing of Nakba Day “events” by Arab organizations that received funding from the state. Last March, Maariv journalist Kalman Libeskind strongly condemned the argument that the Nakba should be taught in the Israeli education system, because giving it a place in the Israeli classroom would amount to claiming that Jewish existence on Israeli land is theft. Even worse, to teach the Nakba narrative alongside the Zionist narrative would be to claim there is no distinction between good and evil, truth and falsehood.

Another example: Journalist Erel Segal wrote in the right-wing, religious-Zionist newspaper Makor Rishon last April: “In the name of multiculturalism and the attempt to undermine the Jewish state from within, people want to teach here in the narrative of the aggressor. This is arrogance redoubled with outrageous nerve.”

A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute before Independence Day last year found that 58 percent of the Jewish public supports the Nakba Law, with only a third against it. In other words, what is unique about the Israeli case is that it not only denies the violence of the initial colonization of the land, but views the natives – those who inhabited the land – as the aggressors. This inversion of victim and perpetrator is a clear, classic example of denial, which at once erases one’s wrongdoing and projects it onto the other side.

In erasing its violent beginning, most notably its expropriation of Arab lands and the creation of Palestinian refugees, Israel was probably no worse than most other peoples. But the difference between Israel and other nations is that, while most Western nations gradually opened up about their pasts and agreed to display contested memories, or even to adopt wholesale the version of the minority (Jews in Germany; Native Americans in the United States, Indigenous Australians, etc.), Israel has gone in the opposite direction and increasingly made the erasure of the Arabs’ own version of their history into an official policy of the Jewish state, in order to increase the legitimacy of Zionism. The control and erasure of the past was caused by the increasing involvement of settlers in Israeli politics, where the legitimacy of Israel and the legitimacy of the territories became one single cause.

The result of this tactic, however, is not without irony: The persistent denial of the Nakba makes Zionism less, rather than more, legitimate in the eyes of its Arab minority and in the eyes of most of the enlightened world. Acknowledging officially that some Arabs were forced out of their lands, and enabling a minority group to express its own historical experience, would strengthen rather than weaken the moral and political authority of Zionism (this writer believes that the great catastrophe that befell the Arab natives of the land does not undermine the legitimacy of early Jewish nationalism).

To further illustrate my point: Germany and Turkey both committed atrocious genocides, and yet what enabled Germany to become a moral world leader is that it acknowledged its crimes. Turkey will never attain this moral status not because it committed worse crimes, but because it will not acknowledge its past.

Commenting on the shocking recent behaviour of Eastern European countries in the face of the humanitarian crisis of refugees at the door of Europe, the Princeton historian and sociologist Jan T. Gross remarked, “Eastern Europe, by contrast [to Germany], has yet to come to terms with its murderous past. Only when it does will its people be able to recognize their obligation to save those fleeing in the face of evil.” Opening up one’s collective memory to contested narratives increases rather than decreases the moral status of a state. Commenting on a poem by concentration camp survivor Dan Pagis, literary critic James Wood put it well: Worse than suffering itself “is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased.”

2: Denial as a hijacking of the future

The second form of denial is not one that erases the past, but that hijacks the future for the sake of preserving both the comfort and the ideology of certain groups in Israeli society.
Strategies to ignore the consequences of one’s actions in the future are like those of the smoker who persists in not defining his heavy smoking as a gamble on his and his children’s health. The messianic politics of the territories is a spectacular gamble on the future of all Israel, with stakes as high as the collapse of the Zionist project in the space of a few short decades.

In an article published in TheMarker last June, which dealt with an economic boycott of Israel, it was argued that the boycott has actually existed for a long time and operates on many levels, far from the spotlight. It keeps expanding all the time and will, if it maintains this level of expansion, bring serious damage to the Israeli economy.

An internal report by the Finance Ministry’s chief economist two years ago stated that in the extreme case of a European Union ban on Israel, which would include 100 percent damage to Israeli exports to Europe and the cessation of European investment in the country, the annual loss for Israeli exports would be $88.1 billion, GDP would suffer a $40 billion shortfall, 36,500 jobs would be lost and investment would fall $10.9 billion.

These dire economic consequences would be only the beginning: Soon, Israel would turn into a rogue state that would develop as an isolated military fortress, living off sales of arms and security equipment to the rest of the world; internally, it would be characterized by rampant poverty, inequalities, religious fanaticism and lack of education.

Last September, Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote an article laying out what is in store for Israel. The core secular part of Israeli society is shrinking, with minority groups – Haredim, religious Zionist and Arabs – expanding around it, weakening the secular classes. Based on figures in the Statistical Abstract of Israel, the trends are clear: a generation ago, 60 percent of Israeli children learned in secular state schools. Two years ago, only 41.5 percent of the first grade attended those same schools. The data estimate that, by 2019, only 37.2 percent of first-graders will go to secular state schools. Deliberate state policies triggered this demographic revolution since Ben-Gurion. Israel is already sharply split between hostile tribal groups and will continue splitting further; because it is becoming a religious country, we can expect that its legal, moral and cultural core will, in fact, be mostly inspired and shaped by halakha (Jewish religious law), and will see a large proportion of its population suffer from under-education and chronic unemployment. Such demographic policy characterized different governments and was based on denial that this social model is unsustainable.

Economists have a particularly accurate way of describing the mechanism at work in such hijackings of the future: optimism bias – defined as a cognitive flaw in the judgment of one’s actions, which tends to under-evaluate the risks of one’s decisions and the likelihood of losses or damages entailed by such decisions. In other words, an optimistic bias is the error that makes the gambler who has a few wins at the beginning of the evening develop the belief that he will continue to win until the wee hours.

Settlers and the religious-Zionist camp have many good reasons to entertain the gambler’s optimism bias with regard to Israel’s future. They are convinced that God’s hand itself wrote the history of Israel for the last 70 years and that this history was written just for them (the birth of Israel against all odds; the Six-Day War as a divine miracle; Yitzhak Rabin’s murder as an unfortunate but positive historical accident; the collapse of the Israeli left as proof of its moral weakness, etc.).

Optimism bias is likely to be particularly delusional among settlers, since in Jewish theology Jews are the only people God engages with seriously for his grand plans. Israeli nationalism was interpreted in this theological frame: As the manifestation of an intimate, privileged and exclusive relationship between the Jews and God. The denial of the future by settlers has theological reasons, but the same theological strain was present in secular Zionism and easily penetrated the Green Line.

In 2015 OECD research that compared well-being in 36 countries, Israel ranked at the bottom of almost all the objective measures of well-being: personal security, work-life balance, civic engagement and governance, environmental quality, housing, etc. And yet, miraculously, Israel ranked in fifth position with regard to subjective well-being – certainly testimony to Israelis’ happy temperament, as well as their inability to understand the low quality of their institutions, a symptom of the optimism bias that makes this country endearing to some, unbearable to others.

The optimism bias of a nation sure that God (or history) will always be on its side resembles that of the heavy smoker who takes everyday good health as the irrefutable and tangible proof that God has personally written eternity insurance to him. But, as we all know, the fact that a smoker is healthy now doesn’t mean cancer won’t start tomorrow.

3: Denial as seeing, yet not seeing

A large proportion of the Israeli population is increasingly numb and indifferent to the humanitarian disaster that plagues Palestinians. These Israelis are in the same position as the woman who sees her husband sexually abusing his daughter and yet fails to register it. We witness an astounding numbers of house demolitions, killings of children, expropriations of land, administrative detentions, torture, violations of international rights, daily crimes of theft, vandalism, attacks by settlers against Palestinians, with the deliberate denial of the army which often stands near, and stands idly by. What fogs our vision is the fact that the lawlessness of the occupied territories is protected by the army itself – the most moral army in the world.

The reason why the government of settlers has undermined the moral authority and work of human rights organizations like Yesh Din, B’Tselem or the Public Committee Against Torture is due to the fact that these organizations compel us to look at what our gaze is trying to avoid. They force us to call what Israel is doing by its proper name. They oppose the denial.

They are the eyes that see. For example, a report by Yesh Din has addressed Israeli soldiers’ practice of standing idly by in the face of crimes committed by Israeli civilians against Palestinians and their property in the territories – a practice that is almost as old as the occupation itself. The term “standing idly by” refers to incidents in which Israel Defence Forces soldiers witness attacks on Palestinians or their property and do nothing to prevent or stop them, or to immediately detain and arrest the offenders. Such passive protection of the violence, and violation of law and human rights, is the same as the passive gaze of the mother who looks at her husband abusing their daughter, a denial of the crime, and ultimately a denial of her own humanity.

From the early days of the occupation, the IDF’s “command ethos” has evaded its responsibility, defined by the Supreme Court as one of the major, fundamental obligations of a military commander in an occupied territory. The military’s refusal to uphold its obligations allows the practice of standing idly by to proliferate, and expresses yet another aspect of the policy of denial toward illegal activity by Israeli civilians.

The soldiers’ practice of standing idly by has been documented for decades by both government agencies and human rights organizations. Yet the army and Israeli society continue to see without seeing, to have their consciousness numbed by fuzzy slogans about “military defence” and “military security.”

Here, too, the state’s denial of lawlessness in the territories can take place only because of processes within Green Line Israel. As has often been said, Israel is not a state with an army, but an army with a state. The state budget for 2015 stipulates that the Defence Ministry receive 57 billion shekels ($14.7 billion). This is in addition to another 7 billion shekels allocated to the ministry for 2014. Defence expenditure is the single biggest item in the state budget, accounting for some 16 percent of it.

The Defence Ministry budget is different from other government departments, in that it enjoys special budget rights, is completely controlled by the Defence Ministry, is usually classified, and spending changes do not require the prior approval of Knesset members.

In other words, the Defence Ministry and security establishment function like a bureaucracy independent from the rest of the country, a bureaucracy that expands with no regard for other collective needs, such as health, education or culture. “Military security” has replaced all foreign and domestic policy. Life inside the Green Line has become the life of a military trench: we request only to survive, and the demands of survival have hijacked any and all political considerations, thus depriving Israelis of the capacity to see and to grasp the evils that are committed in their name.

Denial is not simply a flaw of our consciousness, as psychoanalysis sometimes naively suggests. Denial is a pact of ignorance we make with ourselves, a choice to know and not to know, and is thus a particularly disturbing moral deficiency. A gambler who stakes the house of his children because he is thoroughly convinced he will beat the casino is less likely to be cured of his compulsion than the nervous gambler who remains aware of the risks. A woman who bullies her colleague, but thinks herself cute and witty, is more laughable than an ordinary bully.

Blindness to oneself is the stuff of comedies, but in politics denial is not funny. Adam Smith, one of the founders of modern economics, put it perfectly: “The overweening conceit which the greater part of men have of their own abilities is an ancient evil remarked by the philosophers and moralists of all ages.”

The tragedy of this comical flaw is that it only becomes aware of itself when it contemplates the havoc and damage it has wreaked.

Denial on a grand scale, as exists in Israel, not only fogs consciousness and numbs moral intuition, it also makes possible Netanyahu’s claim that Hitler never intended to destroy the Jews, while remaining at his post without being forced to resign. We can hear this and resume our daily routine because Israel is now built around a gigantic lie. In Václav Havel’s stunning words: we have become accustomed to “living in the lie.”

Prof. Eva Illouz is a sociologist and author of nine books.

Police stand guard at their new road blocks in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Issawiyeh in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015. Photo by AP

The Fruitless Israeli-Palestinian Discourse of Master and Servant

As I sit amid the cornfields of Illinois, I realize that it’s really not that complicated: If there was genuine desire on the Israeli side, so many of our problems could be solved.

By Sayed Kashua, Haaretz
November 12, 2015

I find myself sitting far away amid the cornfields of central Illinois, contemplating the day when I’ll have to return to Israel with my family. My contract with the University of Illinois is up in two years, and if I haven’t found another position by then or other work in the United States, I’ll have no choice but to return to the place where I’m considered a citizen.

True, a moment hasn’t gone by where I haven’t missed our apartment, my family and friends, and the language. But still, a great fear grips me whenever I imagine returning to Jerusalem.
Sometimes I find myself sitting on the deck in the backyard of our Illinois home and thinking about the Jerusalem we left a year ago. Sometimes I find myself gazing out at the cornfields with which I’ve surrounded myself and thinking about peace. It’s like a job I’ve taken on, just like other Israelis and Palestinians, in which I have to predict the future of the region, think about a peace plan – comprehensive or limited, broad or specific – thoroughly weigh the possible solutions, raise arguments for and against the views I come up with in my mind in search of another new way that will be fair, a way that will ensure a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m trying to find an acceptable solution – who the hell asked me anyway? And why do so many people from the place I come from think about peace, with practically everyone having his own view about it, what to do and what not to do, what they’d be willing to do and what they wouldn’t. As if the desire is there to achieve this peace that everyone wants – it’s just that our leaders don’t know how to get there and somebody has to help them, to think outside the box, to come up with a new way that no one else has ever thought of before: a new way that will open everyone’s eyes and convince them this is clearly the only way.


So many people are busy discussing various issues like the two-state solution, or a binational state, transfer, annexation, full Israeli control, autonomy, transferring the Triangle and Arab communities within Israel to the Palestinian Authority. They talk and talk about it as if someone really is searching for a solution, as if the desire is there and the problem is just finding the solution to this so-called complex equation that no one has managed to solve yet. Yet this is not the situation in Israel, and all the talk is beside the point when there is no desire on the part of the Israeli leadership, and perhaps also much of the Israeli public, to reach an accord, find a solution or make peace.

Sometimes, as I gaze upon the Illinois cornfields, I realize it’s not really so complicated, that it’s actually quite simple, and clichés such as “mutual trust” and “it’s the thought that counts” come to mind. If there was genuine desire on the Israeli side, even without a solution it would be possible to solve a large percentage of the problems between Israelis and Palestinians by means of simple statements from the Israelis. Such as a sentence beginning with the words “To our Palestinian brethren…” or that contains words like “forgiveness” and “hope,” and, especially, words like “equality,” “freedom” and “liberty.”

Sometimes, from far away, it seems it could all be so simple. That a smile, instead of the sword by which the prime minister lives, could really change the picture. That the ability to recognize the other’s suffering could work magic. Simple sentences that are different from the sentences so full of hatred and violence and incitement that come out of the mouths of the prime minister and many of his ministers could do wonders even before any practical steps are agreed upon.

Sometimes when I sit and gaze at the Midwest fields where I have made my home, I realize it doesn’t look like any move can be expected from the Israeli side. That one shouldn’t expect anything from the one who holds the sword versus the one without a sword. One should expect the holder of the sword to share his power or spare the lives of his Palestinian subjects in the name of universal morality, or human compassion. The one with power, who makes the laws and prints the money, is also dictating his own morality and redefining human compassion.
Sometimes I wonder if there is any hope left for an Israeli-Palestinian discourse that is built on equality and liberty, rather than a fruitless discourse of master and servant. And sometimes I wonder how I became a servant kneeling before the master, who taught me that, without his kindness and benevolence, I would be much worse off.

Sometimes the master accuses me of spitting into the well from which I drink, or of biting the hand that feeds me. And sometimes I remember that the master stole my well, and the fields from which he gives me the leftovers when I behave according to the rules he has set for me. Sometimes inside my new house, I’m afraid of the day when I’ll truly be free, afraid that I won’t know how to cope with freedom, won’t know what to do with it, that I’ll fail in my attempt to become independent and, in the absence of a master, will have no one to blame but myself.

Sometimes I think that if we have to go back, then it certainly won’t be to Jerusalem. Not to the Jerusalem beset with racism that we left at the height of the last Gaza war. Not to the Jerusalem where the separation between blood and blood is so direct, where the injustice and oppression of the western part of the city toward the eastern part is so glaring, and nothing is done about it. Life in the western city for an Arab with a familiar name, who got lucky after numerous attempts and found a homeowner willing to sell his place to non-Jews, was hard and upsetting, especially when it came to the children. They gave up their Arabic language and, despite their awareness of the family background of refugee-hood, loss of land and destruction of villages, preferred to adopt the history they learned from their teachers in the Hebrew schools, having grasped that they were better off doing so if they didn’t want to stick out in the neighbourhood where we lived or be hated in school.

The main concern was not that same old Palestinian national pride, but the knowledge that the Zionist narrative is good only for Jews; that the same narrative they were learning in school was negating their existence, perpetuating their foreignness as enemies, and instilling in them values that said they were somehow less human, somehow lacking. Maybe I would go back to West Jerusalem without too much bother if I could lie to my kids and tell them they are equal citizens in a democratic state.

Sometimes I think I ought to act like all the other Arabs and convince myself that my only choice is to return to Tira, the place I grew up and where my whole family lives. Sometimes I find myself gripped by nostalgia, and in my imagination I liken the Tira of today to the Tira of my childhood, which was a poor village, but a warm and protective family haven.

But I know full well that there is no place for nostalgia, that today’s Tira – which now calls itself a city – is a kind of mutation of an impoverished town and village, a dense family ghetto that has devolved into violence and operates according to rules whose internal logic is anyone’s guess. An agricultural village that in 1948 was home to about 2,000 people from a small number of families, and today has a population of over 25,000, all related to those exact same families. Families that were once a source of support, of a sense of belonging and solidarity, have now expanded to the point where they are a source of dispute over every meter of land, of sometimes lethal rivalries between brothers over every bit of earth – as everyone knows there is no room, and that even if you were lucky enough to get to build a house near your parents, it’s highly unlikely your children will be able to build their home near you.
A city in which almost everyone who is born there keeps on living there, a city without industry, a city lacking any characteristic of a city. A city whose inhabitants all seem to want to keep clinging to the same imaginary past and keep calling it “Tira village.”

But there won’t be any choice. If we do return and things haven’t changed by then, it will be better to live in Tira village, for its fate is my fate. Or as my mother used to say, “Put your heads between these heads and shout: Cut our heads off!”

The writer is an award-winning novelist and columnist for Haaretz.

The most common means of enforcing submission – the ubiquitous checkpoint. Here Palestinians wait at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, waiting to cross into Jerusalem in August 2010. Photo by Reuters

The Psychology of Maximum Submission With Minimum Force

Much can be learned about a conflict between nations from observing the psychology and biology of conflicts between individuals. Netta Ahituv in conversation with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.

By Netta Ahituv and Daniel Kahneman, Haaretz
November 10, 2015

“During World War II we were in France. The strongest feeling I retain from that period is the helplessness. I was a young boy, but my older sister could have joined the French Resistance without this adding to the danger that threatened us anyway. Still, it never occurred to anyone in the family that she would do so. In retrospect, it turned out I was the only one who had noticed that we hadn’t thought of resisting because we felt like hunted rabbits. Since 1967, I haven’t shaken off the connection between the occupation and my experiences as a boy in France.”

That memory is recalled by psychologist Prof. Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, in a conversation about the psychological components of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He notes that control over people is most effective when it achieves maximum submission and helplessness with the minimum of force. “There is a biological background to this,” he observes. “In the animal world we find such phenomena in groups in many species, including primates, where control is effected primarily by means of intimidation and is sparing in the use of actual violence. It’s true that an alpha male attains his status through a series of battles, but afterward it is sufficient for him merely to deter, to only appear dangerous, to demonstrate strength and a controlled use of force in order to maintain his status.”


And from biological law to our specific local example: “We find this also in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s true that at the moment Israel is busy repulsing a wave of terror, but nevertheless the most impressive fact is that Israel has been ruling another people for almost 50 years and yet living in relative tranquillity for most of that time. The ordinary Israeli, who lives beyond the fence, can believe that the conflict is manageable.

“The Israel Defence Forces,” he continues, “have developed the psychology of deterrence among the Palestinians to the level of an art. The army is able to achieve intimidation without being dragged into situations of mass killing, and to create a feeling of helplessness among most of the Palestinians, most of the time; a feeling similar to the one my family and I experienced in France during World War II.”

Does this apply also to nonviolent resistance, such as that practiced by Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King?

“It seems that intimidation with the minimum of killing is an effective means against nonviolent resistance. The successes of nonviolent resistance are achieved when they induce the ruler to resort to cruel actions that shock the world’s conscience. An examination of the nonviolent liberation movements throughout modern history throws up this pattern time and again. Nonviolent liberation movements generally achieved victory in the wake of massacres or abuse perpetrated by the oppressors against nonviolent protesters. That was the case in India, South Africa and Ireland, and was even seen recently in the film ‘Selma,’ which shows how the police sicced dogs on nonviolent demonstrators in a demonstration for the civil rights of blacks in the United States. Such events shock the world and change everything, but so far Israel has succeeded in averting an event of that magnitude.”

Cognitive and emotional components

Kahneman lists a range of psychological phenomena that manifest themselves in conflicts between nations, and in order to simplify, divides them into cognitive and emotional components. “Cognitively,” he says, “what stands out is the radical difference between the way we interpret our own behavior and our explanation of the adversary’s behavior. In a national conflict, as in a spousal conflict, each of the adversaries sees himself as responding to the other’s provocations and believes that the other’s behavior reflects negative eternal traits, which he always possessed. Neither of the adversaries imagines that the other also sees himself as responding and not initiating.”

He cites the Israeli explanation for the Palestinians’ behavior as an example. “It is easy for the Israelis to explain the Palestinian attacks as a manifestation of eternal hatred,” Kahneman says. “It is far more difficult to understand that the hatred is explained, at least in part, as a response to the protracted occupation and its concomitant abuse. The prevailing misconception is to think that if eternal hatred is sufficient as an explanation, then what we do to the Palestinians in the territories makes no difference. Their attitude toward us is not affected by our actions.”

A similar explanation applies to Israel’s perception of the attitude in Europe. “It is easy to attribute the European reservations about Israel entirely to anti-Semitism,” Kahneman says. “It is far harder to view them, at least in part, as opposition to a policy that deviates from the norms of advanced nations. If they are antisemites, it makes no different what we do – their attitude toward us will be the same. Ignoring our contribution to the other side’s behavior is neither an attempt at self-justification nor merely propaganda; it is a general psychological phenomenon that appears in every conflict. Without denying that there is indeed both hatred and anti-Semitism, we need to understand that ignoring the occupation frees Israel from the responsibility it bears.”

The second phenomenon to which Kahneman refers is the lack of any wish to understand the other side. “It’s amazing how similar this element is in disputes between individuals and between nations. In both instances, each side hears only itself and takes very little interest in what the other side is feeling and thinking.”

Identified with weakness

Among the emotional factors, Kahneman notes the natural inclination of people to divide the world into two groups – us and all the rest. “The propensity to differentiate the ‘us’ group from ‘them’ can be based on a shared birthday, eye color or other traits, however superficial. Psychological experiments find that people who have the same birthday are willing to share with one another and trust each other, whereas they discriminate against those who do not share the date. Biology prepares us to distinguish between ourselves and the other. Biology also makes us suspicious and aggressive in our relations with strangers. In a conflict situation, it is natural to exploit superior force to impose our will on the adversary. In the type of thinking that is controlled by associations and emotions, making concessions is identified with weakness.”

There are numerous players in national conflicts – the public, elected officials, the army. To whom are you attributing these psychological traits?

“To everyone. To citizens and their leaders – and that is where the problem lies. The principal hope in a national conflict is that the leaders will overcome the simplistic thinking that stems from the phenomena we have described. In Israel’s history, a clear example of the thinking that is needed is Yitzhak Rabin and his statement that “peace is only made with enemies.” Regrettably, I see no room for hope that the pressure to end the conflict with a compromise will come from below, from the people. It must come from above, from the leadership.”

This last statement could discourage those who wish to end the conflict, make the peace camp despair.

“Indeed, but it’s the truth. It’s unlikely that a large, popular movement will arise that advocates far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. By the same token, it’s equally improbable that an active majority will arise among the Palestinians in favour of making concessions to Israel. Leaders are needed on both sides who will be perceived by their people as being strong enough to make concessions.

“It does not follow from this that the peace organizations are superfluous or wasting their time – it is important to maintain the flame of the idea of peace, to sustain that idea within the public and, generally, to provide a different voice without expecting everyone to be convinced. The importance of moderate voices will manifest itself when a leader arises who is willing to strive for peace. Thanks to the voices of peace, it will be easier for him to wield influence and bring about change.”

Prof. Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences (2002). He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a Fellow of the Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Rationality. He is the author of the best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko of Israel, formally from Ukraine, displays her silver medal for the triple jump won at the 2015 world championships in athletics. Silver medallists feel the most regret of all competitors.

Why Politicians Avoid Regret at All Costs – and Can’t Make Peace

What makes people, and politicians in particular, prefer stasis to action – even if the ensuing change could improve their situation? Behavioural economics has several theories.

By Dan Ariely, Haaretz
November 05, 2015

What causes political stasis? If we examine the question from the point of view of behavioural economics, two main principles come to mind – loss aversion and regret.


Loss aversion is based on emphasizing what can be lost instead of what can be gained. In other words, we look at the current situation and say: If we take a risk (of course, with peace there is no such thing as zero risk), then there’s a chance we’ll lose and a chance we’ll gain. The problem is that we focus to a much larger degree on the potential loss. We spend more time imagining the potential bad outcomes and think how negative and terrible life and our future will be. In contrast, we don’t focus and concentrate on the potential for positive outcomes. As a consequence, loss aversion often leads us to refrain from doing something that could lead to a loss, even if the potential of gain is much larger.

But loss aversion is not the only contributor to political stasis – it is also joined by regret. An experiment conducted at Cornell University examined the issue of regret among athletes who won Olympic medals. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that gold medalists were happiest. But, somewhat unexpectedly, silver medalists were found to be the least happy – less happy than bronze medalists. How come? Because those who take the silver think to themselves: I’ve been training all these years and I only came in second; I was so close to first place but I didn’t win. These kinds of thoughts are part of what is known as counterfactual thinking. Winning the gold for the silver medalists did not actually exist, but they can easily imagine it; they compare themselves to that other, imaginary, state and in contrast they feel disappointed.

And what about the bronze medalists? What sort of thoughts about an alternate reality do they have? What do they imagine could have been different? Well, they say to themselves: Look at all the people that did not win anything, I could have very easily been one of them. And compared to the possibility of coming away empty-handed, the bronze medal certainly makes them feel good.

Regretting an action

Think about another example where we can imagine that taking a different path would have led to an alternate reality: Let’s say we’re either two minutes late for a flight, or two hours late for the same flight. In which situation will we feel worse? Obviously, when we miss the flight by just two minutes. Why? Because when we’re only two minutes late, we can more easily imagine how things could have been different, what could have happened if only… It’s much easier for us to imagine how we could have arrived on time than it would if we were two hours late. When it’s easy for us to imagine how we could have made the flight on time, we feel worse about missing it. In contrast, if we are late by two hours, it is harder to imagine the alternative reality (the one in which we made the flight). We don’t compare our situation to the one in which we made it, and as a consequence we are not as miserable.

Dan Ariely, photo by Dan Keinan

Regret has another nuance – it mainly occurs when we do something, when we take action. When we don’t do anything, when we don’t even try, then there’s a much reduced tendency to experience regret. If we do something and it turns out badly for us, we tend to compare this to an imaginary situation in which we didn’t do anything – and this makes us feel bad. But if we don’t do anything, it’s hard for us to imagine the other situation in which we did something, and so there is much less room for regret, even if the current state of affairs is not good.

Let’s say we take the same route home from work every day. One day, while following the usual route, a tree suddenly falls and wrecks the car. Naturally, we feel bad about it. But not as bad as if we’d opted to take a different route that day. If we decided to try a shortcut that day, and then the tree fell on our car, we’d probably ask ourselves why we did that, why we didn’t take the usual route.

This idea that we feel more regret over things we did than over things we didn’t do is also referred to as the action inaction bias – sure, it is also possible to regret inaction, but the regret that comes with inaction will be less intense than regret over action. Why? Because once we’ve done something, we can go back in our memory to the moment we made the decision, realize very clearly that if we hadn’t done anything, we wouldn’t be in our current predicament, beat ourselves over the head and ask ourselves, “Why did I do it?”

Another example: We’re about to rent a car, and the rental agency offers us expensive insurance that will cover us in case of an accident – but we have to decide about taking this insurance right at this moment. Usually at that moment we imagine how we’d feel in the future if, god forbid, we had an accident and hadn’t purchased the insurance when we had the chance. We imagine how bad and stupid we would feel about rejecting the insurance, and this makes us much more likely to get expensive insurance. We’re not only buying it to protect ourselves from the financial consequences of an accident, but to protect ourselves from a sense of regret.

Political decisions

Loss aversion, regret and the action inaction bias often lead us to avoid taking actions we might regret. They influence decisions that are much more consequential than car insurance, and they influence the decisions we make for ourselves and those we make for others, including political decisions. When it comes to politics, here too it is more difficult to regret an action that was not taken than an action that was. For instance, if we did not make peace with our enemies today, it will be harder for us to regret that than if we did make peace today. Because if we made peace, we could always go back to the day when we made peace and think to ourselves that our decision on that day was a mistake. We’d ask ourselves why we didn’t see the writing on the wall, and why we decided to make peace. But if we didn’t make peace on February 23, then no one will be able to say: Damn, we should have made peace on February 23, but we didn’t.

Another way to look at the role of the action inaction bias in the political stasis is to pose the peace question in a way that does not allow for this asymmetry: Make peace now, or don’t make peace for the next 25 years – as if there is only a temporary window of opportunity in which to make peace, and if peace is not made within that window, then the next opportunity will not come our way for another 25 years, and so on.

Stating the question in this way changes the way we look at inaction. Now the decision is no longer a comparison of “Not today” versus “Yes today,” but “Yes now” versus “Not for a very long time.” This makes the inaction decision more symmetrical with the action decision (yes), and it enables us to also consider regret for our inaction, our “No” decision. In the current Middle East reality, ostensibly it’s not a sweeping “No” to peace that is being said, but just “Not right now.” But if the only two possibilities were “Yes now” or “Not for a very long time,” maybe we would look at the question differently. Deciding “Not to promote peace today” and for many days ends up being the same as deciding not to engage in peace; it just doesn’t feel the same, because we are not actively rejecting peace.

I believe that politicians, like the rest of us, are motivated by loss aversion. They are motivated by a focus on the negative, perhaps even more so than ordinary citizens who are not elected officials, because they worry they will be blamed by the public for every decision they make. Politicians are also motivated by the need to “cover their ass,” as the saying goes. They don’t want to regret anything, because regret could get people to blame them and it could cost them votes. Therefore, for politicians, the desire to avoid the unpleasant feeling of personal regret is compounded by public opinion and electoral anxiety. Loss aversion, regret and the action inaction bias together have an especially strong impact on politicians’ decision making. All of which makes it very hard to make any moves in the direction of peace, and at the same time makes stasis seem even more appealing.

This analysis is, frankly, sad. Very sad, in fact. And it’s even sadder in light of the recent violent events in Israel – which, I suspect, only causes politicians on both sides to fear the potential downside of peace even more, while at the same time making the potential regret even sharper.

The writer is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of “Predictably Irrational,” “The Upside of Irrationality,” “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty” and “Irrationally Yours.”

PNA President Mahmoud Abbas and Qatar’s prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani arrive at a meeting of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee in Doha in 2013. Photo by Reuters.

Saudi Prince al-Faisal Tells Haaretz: Desire for Peace Exists Both in Gaza and Ramallah

Prince Turki
 al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s longtime intelligence chief and still an insider, insists that the Arab Peace Initiative can bring Israel acceptance in the region. But the political will has to come from the Jewish state.

By Chemi Shalev (New York), Haaretz
November 12, 2015

In the summer of 2011, the Saudi regime was fuming at the Obama administration for its support for the Arab Spring, which the Saudis viewed as a threat. One of the more outspoken expressions of Riyadh’s rage came in an article, penned by Prince Turki al-Faisal in the Washington Post, which lambasted Obama’s “failed favoritism toward Israel.” Referring to the then-pending United Nations vote on recognition of Palestine, Faisal bluntly threatened: “There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes” the motion.

Four years later, the Arab Spring has turned into a Jihadist Winter and relations between Washington and Riyadh, notwithstanding the Iran nuclear deal, have improved significantly, if not dramatically. The Palestinians are still pursuing full-fledged recognition at the United Nations, but Faisal no longer believes that their salvation will come from the international body, nor does he imagine that the United States will pressure Israel to make peace. It’s a pity, he says, but that’s not going to happen.

“Obama began his administration very much gung-ho on solving this issue,” Prince Turki tells Haaretz in an interview. “He backed down rather quickly. That was disappointing, and in the Arab world there was a letdown. I don’t think anyone expects the U.S. to push Israel to agree to the Arab Peace Initiative and to reach a two-state solution. It lacks the political will. So it must come from Israel.”

Turki portrays the peace initiative, originally presented by his uncle, then Crown Prince Abdullah, at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, as the only vehicle capable of breaking the diplomatic logjam between Israel and the Palestinians. He submits that the core principles of the initiative – withdrawal to the 1967 borders, establishment of a Palestinian state, an “agreed solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem and normalization with the Arab world – can still serve as a foundation for peace talks. And he rejects the position put forth by many in Israel that until the current turmoil in the Middle East settles down, it’s preferable to maintain the status quo.

Saudi Arabia’s longtime intelligence chief Prince Turki
 al-  Faisal. Rather than dwell on the past, he says, “it’s better to   go forward with the Arab Peace Initiative. Israel should take this opportunity and accept the hand that has reached out to it.”


“I beg to differ with that view,” says the former, longtime Saudi intelligence minister, who now heads the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, in Riyadh, in impeccable English.


“Israel enjoys relative peace now, but that is not sustainable. It can come to the negotiating table from a position of strength. That would be a much better way to go forward than to maintain the status quo and have a flare-up once in a while that only brings more condemnation and more isolation, and the growing boycott movement throughout the world against Israeli goods and Israel itself.”

Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, he claims, are potential partners. Abbas hasn’t abandoned the principle of negotiations to achieve a two-state solution, and Hamas “has always said publicly that it will accept what the PLO accepts.”

He also rejects another frequent Israeli claim about past accords and withdrawals: that instead of peace, they produced more bloodshed. “There are two sides to the story,” he explains. “If it wasn’t for the 18-year occupation of Lebanon, there would be no Hezbollah. In 2005, Sharon withdrew from Gaza without any consideration for what Gazans want. ‘I’m leaving,’ he said, and then imposed a quarantine that only fostered fermentation, a sense of resistance and animosity toward Israel.”

As for the Oslo agreements, Turki adds, “The other side of the story was the continued settlements. There were supposed to be continued withdrawals, and without that the Palestinians were left with a sense of neglect and disappointment that the Israelis had not lived up to their commitments.”

‘Accept the reached-out hand’

But there’s no point dwelling on the past, he adds, because “we can go on forever and find excuses. It’s better to go forward with the Arab Peace Initiative. Israel should take this opportunity and accept the hand that has reached out to it.”

Instead, Israel has systematically ignored the initiative, which was first proposed in 2002 by the Arab League, and reconfirmed at a summit five years later. “Once it was the Arabs who said no; now it is Israel,” he says. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is probably not the “farsighted leader” who could take such a bold step, he adds, but “If the Israeli people were to choose someone else who would be more willing to engage, that would be a welcome development.

“It has to come from Israel,” he adds. “And I hope that when your viewers see me talking like this, [they will realize] I’m not pandering to them. I’m simply stating a fact, that it is the Israeli people, in the final analysis, who have to decide for themselves.”

Turki, the eighth and youngest son of the late King Faisal, has taken up the mantle of trying to nudge Israelis in the right direction. In recent years, he has met publicly with several prominent Israelis, including former MKs Dan Meridor and Meir Sheetrit, former IDF Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, and, most recently, former Finance Minister and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. In honour of last year’s inaugural Israel Conference on Peace organized by Haaretz, Turki wrote an article in which he waxed lyrical about his dream of taking a direct flight to Israel and visiting the Muslim holy places. Sounding almost like Shimon Peres, Turki wrote, “Just imagine too how commerce, medicine, science, art and culture between our two peoples would develop.” In honour of the second Israel Conference on Peace, Turki gave Haaretz the first-ever televised interview with a member of the Saudi royal family. He received us at New York’s ultra-exclusive Baccarat Hotel in midtown Manhattan, in trendy Western attire rather than the traditional white Saudi thawb, or galabiya.

He says he is reaching out to Israelis as a private person and not as an emissary of the Saudi throne, though “I haven’t had any pushback from my government.” It’s clear, of course, that the prince would not pursue this dialogue, which he feels is “absolutely necessary,” without the acquiescence, spoken or not, of the Saudi throne. It is also clear he is eminently qualified to present an urbane and sophisticated Saudi face to the Western world.

He was born in Mecca 70 years ago, but was sent in his teens to the United States. He studied at Princeton along with future president Bill Clinton, though it would take the two many years to strike up a friendship. In his 2004 book “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” journalist Steve Coll, now dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, recounts that Turki cut short his studies and returned to Saudi Arabia because he was “upset and disillusioned” following the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. He then went on to finish his studies in England and became a government adviser in Riyadh.

Top spy

In 1977, Turki was appointed director general of the kingdom’s Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah, or General Intelligence Directorate (GID), a job he held for the next quarter century. He became “one of the longest-serving and most influential intelligence operatives on the world stage,” Coll writes. “A champion of Saudi Arabia’s austere Islam, a promoter of women’s rights, a multimillionaire, a workaholic, a pious man, a sipper of banana daiquiris, an intriguer, an intellectual, a loyal prince, a sincere friend of Americans, a generous funder of anti-American causes, Turki embodied Saudi Arabia’s cascading contradictions.”

According to Mohammed Yousaf, who came to know Turki when he served as director of operations for the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, “His education and experience in the West made him completely free of the common Arab prejudices toward non-Arabs.”

According to Coll, Turki became Saudi Arabia’s top spy at a time that it was evolving into an economic juggernaut; he secured billions for his intelligence agency, for other friendly intelligence services and for pro-Saudi agents and informers around the globe, including in the United States. He forged close links between the GID and the CIA, and was a principal conduit between the Americans and Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan that were fighting the Soviets after their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, including one led by his compatriot Osama bin Laden. But Turki left his post only a few days before the September 11 attacks in New York, under circumstances that have never been completely clarified. He then served as Saudi ambassador to London and then, for a relatively short period, as the kingdom’s envoy to Washington.

Earlier this year, one of the conspirators of the 9/11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, named Turki as belonging to a group of Saudi princes who, he claimed, funded Al-Qaida before 9/11. Turki and the Saudi government have vehemently denied the allegation, describing Moussaoui as a “deranged criminal”; and the 9/11 Commission that investigated the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center found no evidence of Saudi funding for bin Laden’s terrorist group. Nonetheless, the famously classified 28-page section of the commission’s report about foreign funding for the group continues to fuel speculation about possible Saudi involvement. Turki says he doesn’t know what’s in the report. “We were the first to ask that it be made public,” he said.

He angrily dismisses claims that Saudi Arabia is a purveyor and exporter of extremist ideology that incites to jihadi terrorism. “That accusation has been made even before 2001, some of it emanating from Israel or from Israel’s friends, especially in the United States. Now it is Iran that is promoting this issue.” Nonetheless, he claims that since 9/11, Saudi Arabia has taken strong actions to fight extremism. “Give me one incident where anybody has been arrested or captured or put under the spotlight in any country around the world who can be accused of either bringing money from Saudi Arabia or exporting inflammatory rhetoric from Saudi Arabia, or a person who inflicted something on somebody from Saudi Arabia. There isn’t even one. So this is a … canard.

“And if you say there are Saudi sheikhs or emirs or personalities doing that, give us proof. Because we are the ones who are going to prosecute them. So if you have any names or telephone numbers,” he adds, with a cynical smile, “please provide them to me.”

He gets even angrier when I ask whether there is anything in Islam itself that fosters the growth of extremist groups such as Al-Qaida and Islamic State. “This claim comes out of an ignorance of Islam,” he says. He describes the terrorists of ISIS – which he insists on calling Daesh, which has a derogatory connotation in Arabic – as “apostates.” What they do “goes against the whole grain of Islamic tradition, thought, theology and practice.” And there are other non-Muslim groups – he mentions some in Africa, for example – that are no less vicious. “In India, a whole train was set on fire because it was full of Muslims, no?”

But ISIS are not only apostates, he adds: They are robbers. “They are robbing me and 1.5 billion Muslims of their faith. [Most Muslims] are not like that: They are everyday people with normal families that want improvement for their kids, better health care, better schools, better clothing, jobs to have money to have a nice life.”

But in Saudi Arabia they also have horrid punishments, I persist, amputating hands of burglars or punishing homosexuals. “Homosexuality is not only a crime in Saudi Arabia. It’s a crime in other countries as well. I think this is an issue that will take its role in human society as they go forward. On the amputations and so on, these are dictates by religious law, the Sharia, and we believe that they are preventive in a society where such acts can be undertaken. And there’s a whole legal procedure, to make sure that they are done justly and according to the teachings of the sharia.

The Iranian issue

“I’m not here to make excuses to you for the Sharia or for any of its principles or its conduct. I’m a believer in Sharia. I think the society in Saudi Arabia believes in it, and this is the law of the land. Some people here in this country [the United States], for example, think that capital punishment is wrong. And yet you see capital punishment being practised in various countries, including in this country, and in Israel too, you have that, for certain crimes.”

Turki is careful when he talks about Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran, which overshadow many of the Middle East’s confrontations. “We all have our disagreements, and sometimes politics overrides good sense,” he says, without clarifying whether he is referring only to Tehran, or to Riyadh as well. He dismisses claims that the tensions between the two are essentially a conflict between Shi’a and Sunnis: That is a narrative that is advanced by Shi’ite militias and Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria, he says.

“The kingdom has survived past differences with Iran. When Khomeini came to power in 1979, he described Saudi Arabia as a country of near-apostates, and said the al-Saud family should be driven out of office. Well, we maintained our cool, and I think wiser heads prevailed at that time in Iran, with the election of President Rafsanjani, and subsequently Khatami.” Relations deteriorated when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, “because of the attempted extension of Iranian influence in the Arab world.” And despite his “nice words,” Turki adds, the situation hasn’t changed much since Hassan Rouhani came to power.

Turki insists that Saudi Arabia has a positive view of the nuclear deal with Iran, assuming it will be fully implemented, as outlined in the joint communiqué issued after the September visit of King Salman in Washington. Nonetheless, not only is Tehran not curtailing its regional ambitions or its confrontation with the Great Satan, the accord will spark a nuclear race in the area, as Turki has been warning over the past few years.

“The agreement actually incentivizes countries to acquire nuclear technology and know-how,” he says. “There are huge programs for developing nuclear reactors for nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in Egypt, in the U.A.E. There is a sense that if Iran is going to get away with certain issues, we can’t have them gain an advantage over us.”

He dismisses the talk, however, that Iran, as a common enemy, has united Israel and Saudi Arabia. “This is nonsense being spread by Netanyahu’s people. I’m not in government to know whether there is or not, but I can tell you that unless and until Israel comes aboard on the Arab Peace Initiative, there is absolutely no way in hell that Saudi Arabia is going to cooperate with any Israeli government on any issue, whether it is Iran, Daesh or anything else.”

Even clandestinely? I ask the prince, and he laughs. “You tell me, can Israel keep anything clandestine? I read Haaretz. I read the Israeli newspapers, I read the American newspapers: Everything is in there. And I don’t think there are any more secrets, except in the minds of people, and I cannot discover that.” Which applies, of course, to Turki’s own thoughts and secrets as well.

The writer is Haaretz’s U.S. editor and correspondent.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017