The importance of the peace process

By Mario Sznajder (for Safe Democracy)

Mario Sznajder explains how the growing cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis demonstrates a mutual insensitivity and lack of leadership on both sides of the conflict. Apart from the loss of lives, the ongoing violence is contributing to a growing public indifference to suffering, which may very well lead to the degradation of both the Israeli and Palestinian societies. In Sznajder‘s opinion, the political elite of both nations needs to adopt the necessary political measures to open up negotiations, thus placing the good of their respective societies above self-interested motivations for political survival.

Mario Sznajder is a Leon Blum chair and professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a researcher for the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He has published hundreds of articles in scientific journals on fascism, human rights, democracy, and the Middle East.

THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE THAT DEFINES THE PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI conflict and its asymmetrical characteristics are by no means novel. Yet, the Israeli military action of the last couple of days on Gaza’s northern border seemed to surpass past limits of tolerability. The artillery bombardment of Beit Hanun caused a large number of civilian casualties.

Most disturbing, however, in these recent events, is the fact that despite the gravity of the violence, the Israeli population hardly raised a finger in protest. Bloodshed for both societies has become so routine that there is hardly any reaction to it at all. Even more troubling are certain cases in which, rather than protesting the violence, Palestinians rejoice jubilantly in the streets when their bombers are successful.

The asymmetry of the conflict resides in the fact that Israel attacks as an organized state using its powerful, modern, formal military capabilities, while the Palestinians attack with primitive Kassam missiles and terrorist bombings.

After years of violence, it should seem clear that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, the incapacity of the elected leaders on both sides to come to a politically negotiated solution is a sign of nothing else but the weakness and inadequacy of the ruling elite.

Apart from the rising toll that the conflict has had on human life, growing public indifference to suffering is beginning to pose one of the gravest threats to both Israeli and Palestinian society.

Indifference to what is morally unacceptable, even when acted against an enemy, is working to undermine the moral foundations upon which both societies are built. Indifference becomes internalized as moral apathy, and moral apathy ends up destroying the societal norms of cooperation, tolerance, and coexistence. If the deaths of innocent civilians can be tolerated, than anything that does not affect one personally can occur without the slightest protest.

Yet, elected politicians have shown no concern for the danger that their societies face, and instead appear more concerned with their own political survival. This explains why the Palestinian ruling elite –whether they call themselves a coalition government or a technocratic regime– is in no hurry to adopt the political measures necessary to open the doors to negotiation with Israel. This also explains why the Israeli political elite refuse to take the necessary steps to negotiate with the Palestinian National Authority.

Since the last conflict in Lebanon, Israel’s political debilitation has impeded the opening of negotiations with Syria. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, meanwhile, has sent mixed messages calling for both Israel to the negotiating table and threatening a future war.

With largely negative results, these scenarios of future violence and war have been at the forefront of the political decisions of Ehud Olmert’s administration.

The use of artillery in densely populated zones like the Gaza Strip to stop missile attacks against Israel, apart from being morally intolerable, has proved to be a failed tactic. It has damaged Israel’s international reputation, and has not worked to stop attacks against Israeli villages.

A lack of a strong political leadership is the only explanation –apart from military error– that can be afforded to these kinds of facts.

And the same can be said about Syria. If the declarations of the Syrian President about making peace a real objective were sincere, the only logical response for the Israeli government would be to begin negotiations, even if only to understand hidden Syrian motivations.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s upcoming visit to Washington, where he will be received by President George W. Bush (slightly weakened since the midterm elections), could present a real opportunity to make a change in Israeli defense policy and abandon military initiatives in favor of political compromises.

But for this to succeed, politicians on both sides of the divide will have to place the long-term good of their societies above their self-interested bids for reelection.

If not, violence and moral aberration will be the future of the Middle East.

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