Normative dialogue: A necessary path toward Arab-Jewish reconciliation

by Muli Peleg
NEW JERSEY - In the concluding remarks of his courageous speech on human rights in early July, retired, Supreme Court president Justice Aharon Barak held up a mirror to Israeli society – and not a particularly flattering one at that. “If we don’t find a way to live in peace with our neighbours and with the Arab minority in this country,” Barak warned “we won’t find a way to live at peace with ourselves.”

The aggressive critical reaction to this speech was to be expected – like the rage of a man awoken from a deep sleep. A substantial majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens do not understand, or refuse to internalise, the fact that their rights and quality of life are conditional on there being full equal rights for Arab citizens of Israel. Only if they aspire to a shared future will both sides survive in this harsh land.

The basis for every society’s survival is a shared understanding of what is the common good and a constitutive system of values that supports this understanding. Only then can a stable society guarantee its existence and success over time. Laws, treaties and political systems are not as enduring as a shared platform of values.

The more a value system is believed in and accessible to all, so the need for governmental arrangements and procedures to create common goals will lessen. But this gives rise to a fundamental problem: how do we create a system of values that includes all segments of society and encourages them all – religious and secular, Arabs and Jews – to live in accordance with it?

The answer is twofold: First we must focus on, a fundamental platform of core values that contains the basic values that all the various groups can subscribe to without having to compromise on those of their particular group. Secondly, such a society, comprising communities that are destined to live together, must develop the skills for such a dialogue. Both these components are sorely absent in Israeli society.

One of the most significant obstacles to the creation of a common platform of values is the fact that nationalism is a fundamental value for both sides. Nationalism is particularistic and thrives at the cost of denigrating and often attacking the nationalism of the other in order to unite, motivate and uplift those who choose to gather under its umbrella.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict began as a nationalist struggle and remains so. Yes, it is true that religious and cultural elements were added and inflamed it further but fundamentally it has always been a struggle between two national movements with opposing agendas: that is, two national communities seeking sovereignty over the same piece of land.

National affiliation cannot belong to the common core values because it is divisive by its very nature. It not only undermines these values but also the process of conducting a dialogue on them, one which is built on trust and respect between the parties and a joint vision for a shared future.

In the present reality, Jews and Palestinians in the state of Israel do not share a common vision. In their hearts, each side wishes for the other side to disappear. The fact that each side yearns to realise its national aspirations and achieve exclusive sovereignty is the reason for the lack of a joint future vision. Nationalism undermines the value forming process and the final product.

The only model which could disassemble the landmine of Israeli-Arab inequality is multiculturalism, which means a recognition that each culture is of equal value regardless of its size, force or its historical claims to a place.

Present day Israel is not prepared for real multiculturalism. As a sovereign culture which views the dissemination of its culture within its territorial boundaries as a necessary and self-evident mission, it is difficult for Israel to give up exclusive control over symbols and rituals. Jewish Israelis would find it very difficult to accept that their flag, national anthem, festivals, national holidays and memorial days, heroes, myths, historical narrative – all the elements which comprise their national identity would no longer function as state symbols but serve only as symbols of the Jewish nation.

And why can’t these symbols and rituals pertain to Jews alone and by the same token, Arab symbols pertain to Arabs alone? The answer is the feeling of entitlement; an aspiring to authority and exclusive ownership over this land and the desire to achieve it at the other’s expense or a belief in the illusion that it is possible to do so.

The Israeli-Arab conflict will endure as long as the parties do not transcend the national and move towards the human. Only there, in the human dimension, can one find the meeting points that will make it possible to achieve the common core values. This can only happen through a dialogue which is neither spontaneous nor lacking in rules, but has its own specific rules.

One of these rules is to appeal to a supreme value which transcends the particular values of each group. This kind of super-ordinate value helps when the parties reach a point where they are arguing in circles pitching one value against another. Another vital rule in a dialogue on values is the recognition that all the parties are members of the same community, regardless of the depth of their differences and their consequences.

The ultimate goal is for the community to remain intact so a scenario that sees a possible dissolution cannot be considered. This gives rise to further rules such as not attacking, harming or undermining the core values of the other side. To comply with this rule necessitates a great deal of restraint especially when discussing values, a process which can stir up strong emotions.

Another behavioural norm, derived from the previous rules, is not demonising opponents or denying their values. As a principle, in this sort of dialogue, a dichotomous black and white outlook which characterises extreme and superficial perspectives is reigned in and a more complex and tolerant approach towards the other takes its place. This change calls for a great deal of sensitivity and openness towards the other and gives rise to yet another rule: that sometimes it is preferable not to discuss certain subjects at all.

All these characteristics are clearly missing from Israeli political culture because the inherent national ethnocentric model is still relatively new. Both sides, Arabs and Jews alike, have yet to exhaust this model and are therefore not yet ready to internalise and implement consideration for and appreciation of the other – the necessary prerequisites for setting up a multicultural society. Until then, all the knights of human rights will continue to suffer arrows of criticism for their honesty and vision.


* Muli Peleg is a professor of political science and communication at the School of communication at Netanya College and a senior lecturer at the Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. He is also a research fellow at the Stanford Center for International Conflict resolution and negotiation (SCICN). This article is part of a series on nationalism and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 03 September 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Revisiting nationalism in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship
Palestinian nationalism
The national trap
Hallucinatory states
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Other articles in this series

Revisiting nationalism in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship by Shelley Ostroff
Palestinian nationalism by Daoud Kuttab
The national trap by Efrat Ben-Ze'ev
Hallucinatory states by Khaled Diab