The language of leaders: Lincoln as a model

by Michael Lame
04 March 2010
WASHINGTON, DC - Angry rhetoric now characterises the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, two West Bank burial sites revered by Jews and Muslims alike, were added by Netanyahu to Israel’s new national heritage list. Abbas responded by charging that “Israel’s attempt to steal the Palestinian heritage is part of a larger scheme to take over religious Muslim sites”. Netanyahu countered by issuing a statement accusing Abbas of engaging in a “campaign of lies and hypocrisy”.

What’s wrong with this picture? Such militant language from each leader may be received with approval by his respective domestic audience, but it temporarily poisons the well of reconciliation from which both peoples must eventually drink.

One consequence is heightened tensions and increased distrust between Palestinians and Israelis. Another is a decreased likelihood that the two sides will do a deal in the foreseeable future.

Being a statesman, and not merely a successful politician, requires viewing the future strategically. In the long run, Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to live together, without violence, terror, oppression or provocative language. This is true regardless of what shape the final settlement takes.

Must a leader who wishes to protect his base of support by exhibiting strength use demeaning rhetoric against his or her adversary? One could examine the language of Sadat, Hussein or Rabin for examples of strong Middle Eastern leaders who at crucial moments were willing to speak in a conciliatory fashion.

For an inspiring perspective on the language of leaders, let’s look back to America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln—a war leader and a man of peace.

Lincoln was uncompromisingly aggressive in wartime, refusing to consider any negotiated settlement that would not restore the Union. Yet his language was always amicable and temperate towards the people of the South. Even though he thought slavery was “an unqualified evil”, he did not speak abusively of slave owners. .

Lincoln’s exemplary magnanimity is most evident in the closing passage of the Second Inaugural Address, delivered while the war still raged: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God give us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Can you imagine any Israeli prime minister or PA president speaking thus?

Of course, no analogy is exact. Southerners were citizens of the United States before they seceded and Lincoln always considered them to be Americans who would one day be welcomed back into the Union. In contrast, Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza speak a different language than do the Jews of Israel, both literally and figuratively. Neither people has ever wanted the other, let alone wanted them back.

Despite profound differences between the two situations, Israelis and Palestinians can learn from Lincoln. The president’s determination to defeat a wartime enemy did not lead him to vilify that enemy. On more than one occasion, Lincoln visited and comforted wounded confederate soldiers who had fought against his own troops. His mollifying words and deeds looked past the immediate conflict to a time when the warring parties would live alongside each other in peace.

As this example suggests, one way to change the dynamics of a conflict is to change the language employed. Provocative words can be replaced by words of moderation, respect and compassion. Of course, words alone will not transform the Middle East. But the habits of thinking that shape and are shaped by moderate language can also produce moderate action. Use of a new vocabulary can begin to create a context more conducive to resolving the conflict.

Returning immediately to the negotiating table won’t produce this effect. Negotiations must be preceded by a profound change, perhaps beginning with a shift in the language used by the leadership to address the other side.

Obviously this is a difficult process. Despite cooperation at many levels, Israelis and Palestinians remain in an adversarial, occupier-occupied relationship. Yet it’s possible for them to pursue a policy which serves their interests without impugning their opponents’ motives or character and without disparaging their national aspirations.

The words of leaders matter and the specific words that leaders speak can be of critical importance to their constituents and to their opponents. Now is the time for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to choose words that can help create a new reality in the Middle East.


* Michael Lame is the founder of “Re-Think the Middle East”, a new organisation whose purpose is to help elevate the quality of public discourse regarding the future of the Middle East and the roles played by the United States and the international community in creating that future. He blogs at This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 March 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Other articles in this edition

Using Qur’anic narratives in pursuit of peace by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Can Muslim and Jewish narratives co-exist? by Deborah Weissman
Muslim right to the Jewish past by Yonathan Mizrachi
Palestinian prime minister to Israeli leaders: We are building a state while under occupation to end the occupation by Ziad Asali