Adam Gross

Towards creative thinking about Arab-Israel peace – overcoming six big problems

This morning a Jerusalem Post editorial called for creative thinking on peace solutions, to ‘go beyond the paradigm’ of the two-state framework on 1967 borders.

The article rightly observed some of the challenges with the two state framework and noted several alternative approaches without endorsing either one.

However, before any attempt can be made to find creative solutions to the conflict, it is first necessary to develop a correct understanding about what are the problems.

The conflict is not and has never been a conflict about how best to divide the Land. If it was, it would have been solved long ago.

That is not to say there aren’t Jews and Arabs who would settle for a two-state carve up, even large numbers of them.

The problem is that there are also large numbers on either side who would oppose this outcome, many of them violently, and with plenty of outside help from various state and non-state actors.

That is why the foreign ministers of the US, EU and UK are hugely mistaken to believe that a two state solution on the 1967 borders would ‘take the oxygen out’ of the conflict. They are taking a huge gamble with other people’s lives.

The reality is that it would add a huge amount more oxygen, escalating the conflict to a new and much more bloody phase.

It would bring exponentially higher cost in ‘blood and treasure’ not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for the wider Middle East, US, Europe, the UK and beyond.

So we have to make better efforts to understand the basic problems that need to be solved.

While the underlying worldviews are complex and the histories behind them long, at root, in simplified terms, each party has four major objectives and they are relatively symmetrical:

  1. Each party wants to self-determine
  2. Each party wants long-term security
  3. Each party wants freedom for its people to live across the entire Land
  4. Each party wants sovereignty over the entire Land, not only for security purposes but also as an objective in its own right

The two state solution addresses objective (1), and could very debatably, in extreme best case scenario, with huge external assistance, only partially address objective (2), albeit in a way that would be like putting a small sticking plaster over a big gaping wound.

Where creative thinking is required is to address objectives (3) and (4), because these motivations exist, they are powerful, they are what mobilise the violent rejectionists on each side, and they are the key to the sustainability of achieving objectives (1) and (2) as well.

The first problem we face with modern peacemaking efforts is to recognise that objectives (3) and (4) are actually real. Most Western leaders, together with many secular Israelis, do not. At best, it is wrongly assumed these factors are held by small minorities and where articulated, they are merely positions that can be negotiated, rather than interests that cannot (as per the theory of negotiations).

This is because objectives (3) and (4) are rooted in values like tradition, sanctity and loyalty which have become obsolete in ‘mainstream’ liberal-rationalist thinking (see Rabbi Sacks or Idit Bar on this, for example).

The second problem we face with modern peacemaking efforts is to believe that objectives (3) and (4) can actually be solved. To the extent they are thought of at all by mainstream liberals, they are written off as being fundamentally zero sum irresolvable questions rooted in extremism, espoused by extremists, and so best suppressed.

The third problem we face is to recognise who it is that will shape how objectives (3) and (4) can best be achieved. It is not the peacemakers, nor is it the political leaders nor even the fighters. It is the religious leaders. And not just any religious leaders. Not the politicians that represent the religious leaders. Not necessarily the religious leaders active in interfaith dialogue. Rather, it is the specific individuals whose views are most widely respected among key constituencies as the final say on matters of religious interpretation.

The fourth problem we face is misplaced secular fear of religious takeover. It is possible that one can invite religious leaders into the conversation, and be guided by their perspectives and rulings, without it being the first step on the ‘slippery slope to religious imposition’. This approach is a norm in the Arab Islamic world, and in most parts of the Orthodox Jewish world too, but it is unknown and scary for many mainstream liberals.

The fifth problem we face is lack of education and empathy. Before any kind of peace can be implemented, each party needs to view the other’s connection with the Land as legitimate. This lack of legitimacy is the root of the conflict today. But it is a manufactured problem. Without needing to pretend there is exact equivalence, Jews and Arabs are both peoples of this Land. The problem is, to admit as much without reciprocation becomes a strategic defeat in the absence of a truly agreeable peace framework.

The sixth problem we face is a focus on minimal rather than maximal outcomes. Minimalist approaches means giving up on dreams held for hundreds if not thousands of years. Maximalist outcomes means realising those dreams. That all the suffering was not in vain.

In my own mind, I can imagine – as guided by religious leaders – a solution emerging in which there is a Jewish state comprising the biblical territory with united Jerusalem as its capital where Jews can live freely and securely across the Land, and a Palestine from the river to the sea with Jerusalem also its capital in which Palestinian Arabs can return and live freely and securely across the Land.

Now wouldn’t that be creative?



About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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