Discussion with Daniel Bar Tal, Middle East peace talks and the Israeli public

Dr Daneil Bar Tal, Branco Weiss Professor of Research in Child Development and Education at School of Education, Tel Aviv University visited Maxwell School of Syracuse university last week for a  two day lecture tour, during which he spoke with us, during a moderated panel discussion.I got to spend quality time with him, talking to him about the issue of Middle East peace and learnt from him, among other things, the latest in the field of conflict studies as well as his insights into what works and what doesnt.
Here are some key points from the discussion and also a few Q&As from the moderated session that took place later :
On spoilers in the Middle East peace process : We are all spoilers to some extent, in that there are no “sacred goals” that we adhere to in peace processes. Sometimes these are flexible, especially in intractable conflicts. When we analyse the rhetoric used by settlers ( Israeli) about moving settlements, there is no reference to economic losses, but usually only about symbolic issues. That the land belongs to the Jews alone, since the time of King David. The rhetoric is intentionally kept at this symbolic level, and not played out at the rational level. Jerusalem wasn’t really an issue in the Middle East peace talks until the 90s’, when it was used against Shimon Peres as an election issue.
On peace making : This may sound counter-intuitive, but moving towards peace usually means moving towards uncertainty, simply because no two parties can absolutely guarantee that the peace will last. Once both parties have signed on the dotted line, they commit themselves to living by it, but there are spoilers out there, who are going to try and scuttle the process. This places the onus of responsibility on the parties involved; and this is not an enviable position to be in.
So, given a choice between a peace treaty that does not guarantee peace ( and relies on trusting the perceived enemy) and having one’s peace by not agreeing to peace, the Israelis are choosing the former.
On Intifada : The real intifada really started in 1994, when an Israeli jewish settler opened fire at muslims praying at a mosque in Hebron. In this incident, several dozen people were killed, and this led to the uprising as we know it, later. The seeds of discord were sown then.
We also realise through our research that people are biased and have distorted views of how they want to remember events. The first intifada actually began with massive killings of Palestinians, and the first suicide attack took place as late as March 2001.
On leadership : We need a leader who is organised, has the determination, and is in a situation to deliver peace. Rabin seemed to be in that situation,but was assisinated. Security has always been an obsession with the Israeli government, despite the government in power. Though the labor party believes in Security through Peace, other parties believe in security through land. A new line of leadership or a new sociological framework will shift the dialogue.
On the 1967 war : Until then, the religious element in Israeli society was latent, but post the war, it became increasingly important, and war was seen as a way of redemption.
On the Israeli/ Jewish diaspora : They function as  a very well oiled machine, and the US house of representatives at times is more hawkish than the Israeli Knesset. There are many perceived similarities between Israel and the USA which have made the relationship so unique, and people have worked hard to maintain it that way.

On the younger Israelis : They are more hawkish than the older generation. We have seen the Green zone, and are aware of the suffering we went through, while the younger generation havent had any direct experience. In theory, most Israelis accept the notion of a two-state solution, but it is the specifics that create a problem. Opinion polls indicate that 65% of the Israelis believe that Jerusalem should not be divided.
On peace education : One of my biggest lessons learnt is that peace education is a long-term process. You sow to reap 10 years or more later. If you are looking for immediate returns, you will be disappointed. I was personally involved in re-looking at the way our history is taught in Israel, and through a very high chaired committee involving the ministry of education, oversaw this project. The irony of it all is that the person incharge of the theme for the year of education was a settler, and extremely hawkish; which made our task difficult.
Soloman Gabriel is  a researcher who has carried out evalution work on the effectiveness of peace education and he has reached the conclusion that peace education is not very effective in the short-run.
On societal change : It is not an easy process, nor is it quick. Imagine trying to change a southerner in the USA to be a secular person. Would that be an easy process ?
On the fundamental problem in achieving peace : I would say it is people who wear ideological glasses, they dont want to look at alternative information which challenges their world-view. They will interpret any information provided to them in a manner which suits them. This is our biggest challenge.

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