What Game of Thrones taught me about The World’s Most Intractable Conflict – No Spoiler Alert Necessary!

I’m a self-professed Game of Thrones junkie, but you don’t need to be a fan of the series to be freaked out at the point in the GOT episode where we first encounter the White Walker army streaming over the mountain in endless droves – unstoppable, unkillable. Nightmare inducing stuff indeed. Yet for me the memorable scene in that episode was something far quieter and less dramatic. The Mother of Dragons says to Tyrion Lannister about the struggle for the Iron Throne:

“The wheel keeps turning and different families end up at the top of the wheel” says Tyrian. “You would like to be the one at the top of the wheel and I can help you”, to which the Targaryen would-be queen replies, “I don’t want to be at the top of the wheel, I want to break the wheel!”.

When various factions fight for power, when regimes change hands but essentially stay the same, it is a prime example of first-order change. The Knesset has changed. New faces fill the vaunted positions, but nothing in the essential conceptualization of the organization is really that different. What our ambitious dragon mommy is referring to is a paradigm shift, a second-order change. A profound re-ordering of the way things are done – and perhaps more importantly, how they come to be perceived.

The invention of the internet heralded a potential a paradigm shift. For the first time in the history of our species, information and opportunity would become available to all, a great leveller, a deomocratization of the great power that comes with knowledge. Indeed, seductive rags-to-riches stories from China to India to our own start-up nation abound. Yet somehow what really happened was simply a repeat, and profound deepening, of age-old patterns. The powerful became more powerful, the rich became richer, and power and wealth began to be concentrated in fewer and fewer and hands as the American dream slid out of view once and for all. A medievilization of the world as we know it. The promised paradigm shift became more of the same, a first-order change that merely preserved and deepened the status-quo, this time with the addition of new media and social networks.

So too with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are all of us turning. We are all of us stuck. All of us. Lannisters, Baratheons, Starks, Tyrells; Israelis, Palestinians, the Arab World, the European Union, the USA, totally stuck. On the one hand, the two-staters going around and around in circles, chasing a dream scenario, a neat win-win solution that will probably never be. On the other, the one-staters: the “Israel is a colonial entity and must be dismantled” crowd; the binational staters; the BDS; the advocacy groups. All of us stuck in our first-order worlds where nothing ever really changes.

As a counterweight, in our fantasies and our fears change is always looming. We argue about who will be at the top of the wheel, who will have control of the wheel, who will win and who will lose.

Last week, the Israeli President Rivlin stood up at the Herzliya Conference and spoke about something that many Israelis choose not to deal with. Our society is changing. In 1990 52 percent of first grade children in Israel were enrolled in secular, state education, 9 percent in Haredi educational institutions. In 2018 the percentage of secular first graders will be 38 and of Haredi school children enrolled for the first time 22 percent. Twenty two percent of first graders who define themselves as Haredi, twenty five percent who are enrolled in the Arab school system. This means just under half of newly enrolled school children in the state of Israel will be from communities that do not define themselves as Zionist. 15 percent of school children will be from homes that belong to the national religious community, those that define themselves very strongly as Zionist often to the exclusion of other possible identities.

Looming on the horizon is a clear division of our society into tribes with not that many common interests or shared ideologies. Indeed, even the IDF which has always served as the glue sticking together the disparate sectors of Israeli society, can no longer be counted upon to fulfill that function, since almost half the population will not serve. Not only is this ‘new Israeli order’ as Rivlin terms it, economically not viable, it also has serious and deep implications for Israeli society and for the future of the state. Yet the political, social and economic elites, the ruling classes, go on governing, behaving, talking in the same old way. Disquietingly resembling House Lannister/Baratheon etc, striving to preserve the status quo above all else.

My years of work as a psychotherapist have taught me one obvious startling lesson: Change is damn hard. Most people will fight against it with all their might regardless of how changing behaviors, thought patterns, relationships or lifestyle could improve their lives and lead to far more satisfaction and fulfillment. The number one enemy of change is fear. The prize winning economists Tversky and Kahneman have proved many times over that people prefer not to risk a future loss even if they will certainly gain something in the present. That type of thinking is driven by fear. We are afraid to lose what we have, afraid to risk in the service of change even if that change would be fantastic for us. In this case fear almost always trumps hope. The other side of this is that change is inevitable, it happens in spite of us and we cannot stop it. So how do we embrace it rather than fight against it? How do we move from being fear-driven to being spurred on by hope?

What we need to do is to break the wheel and shift the paradigm.. To move from wheel talk to talk of a different order entirely. We cannot hope to make small first-order changes (Labor instead of Likud for example) and expect to solve intractable conundrums. What would this entail? How could we possibly shift a paradigm in which we have been so stuck for so long?

For starters we would acknowledge and work to relinquish a bad habit we are all guilty of: the either/or thinking that characterizes the conflict. Independence or Nakba. Settlements or Palestinian State. One state or Two. Winners or losers. Military or diplomatic. Hamas or the PA. Likud or Labor. Israel or Palestine. Historical rights to the land or colonialist interlopers. Victim or perpetrator. Us or them. We have conned ourselves into believing that this is the vital survival heuristic. While these categories help us to define ourselves and to divide up our world into neat, easily understood compartments, they do nothing to help resolve the conflict. Indeed they serve to perpetuate the conflict and the stuckness, and place us in grave danger.

We would begin to embrace a consciousness, an uncomfortable one at first, a discomfort that we would fight against with all our might, in which both seemingly contradictory narratives or ideas are true at the same time. Human beings are terrible at this. We are hardwired to not be able to hold two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time. A design flaw that perpetuates conflict maybe more than any other factor.

My contention is that intractable conflicts can only begin to be resolved once this both/and paradigm is embraced and the conflict ceases to be a purely zero-sum game. In Northern Ireland, for example, the way out of the conflict came about with the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 which acknowledged for the first time that the validity of both the nationalist and unionist traditions could be recognized simultaneously. This amounted to a paradigm-shift, since until then the perception had been that either Northern Ireland could be a part of Britain or a part of Ireland. In this conception, there would always be a winner and a loser. The agreement essentially stated that this was no longer the case since both identities could be true and valid at the same time. At its deepest level, the Anglo-Irish agreement shifted the focus of the conflict from land to people and this shifted the perception of the conflict paradigmatically. In a similar fashion, Apartheid South Africa ended with a shift from either/or thinking to the adoption of a new paradigm that abandoned old dogmas and ideologies and embraced new, commonly formulated principles. Only when the ruling party shifted their thinking from a focus on the preservation of minority group rights to the all-encompassing bill of rights and new SA constitution that essentially safe-guarded the inalienable rights of every individual rather than seeking to preserve and entrench rights based on group identity, could a true resolution to the conflict occur.

Every conflict has a unique set of obstacles to resolution and hence each situation requires paradigmatic shifts to occur in different ways, but what is certain is that without these shifts, no resolution is possible. Our challenge is to seek out and find those areas where we are profoundly stuck and try to figure out what paradigmatic shift is needed in our perception of the conflict in order to become unstuck and move forward. Many times the shift happens from the top. In other words, the leadership has a transformational approach which then trickles down to the people. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this will not occur at present and it is up to the people, to you and me, to wag the dog, and in true upstart/start-up fashion, shift our thinking towards new paradigms. It is incumbent upon all of us in the old cliched adage of surfing tee shirt slogans -to feel the fear and do it anyway. It is time to break the wheel!

About the Author
Lisa Ohayon is a South African born clinical psychologist with a Masters in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. She is a mother of four and has been living in Israel for the past seventeen years.