Israeli-Palestinian conflict talks, expected to resume, raise renewed questions on culture

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of an agreement to resume Israeli-Palestinian conflict peace negotiations, a process that has stood idle since negotiations last broke down in 2010, raises renewed questions as to whether it is possible for a peace agreement to be reached, particularly as sharp cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians continue to play a significant role in defining the parameters of peace.

Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right: Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in Amman, Jordan, on May 26, 2013. Kerry on Friday announced an agreement on a "basis" for renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict talks. Credit: Flash90.

“Culture plays a role both in conflict resolution and conflict maintenance. Culture plays a role when questions of acceptance are raised as basis for peace,” Dr. Mordechai Kedar, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, which is under formation, told JNS.org.

Speaking in Jordan on Friday, Kerry said that a preliminary agreement “establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

“The representatives of two proud people today have decided that the difficult road ahead is worth traveling,” Kerry said.

A specific date for the first meeting between the Israelis and Palestinians in Washington, DC, has not yet been set. Before renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations start, Kedar believes questions of culture loom over the process.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What does peace mean in each culture?’ before you can hope to reach it,” Kedar told JNS.org.

“While in Western terms ‘peace’ means open borders and multi-level cooperation, in the Middle East ‘peace’ does not mean much more than temporary non-belligerence, but Israel has not yet adjusted its expectations from its neighbors, neither Westerners understand the situation in which Israel has to survive in this region,” Kedar said.

Early responses from Israel and the Palestinians on the prospects for renewal of negotiations touched on those differences. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu began racing ahead legislation for any negotiated peace deal to be ratified by a national referendum. 

In his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu stated, “I don’t think these decisions can be made, if there is a deal, by one government or another, but need to be brought as a national decision.”

“It won’t be easy, but we’re going into the negotiations with integrity and honesty,” Netanyahu added.

Meanwhile, multiple Palestinian representatives have been denying that the framework for final-status negotiations had been agreed upon. Palestinian Authority officials have repeatedly accentuated since Kerry’s announcement that they are maintaining their demands in order for talks to resume—including a return to the pre-1967 lines (which were marked as armistice lines between Israel and Jordan after Jordan occupied the West Bank in 1948) as the basis of negotiations, and a complete freeze of construction beyond those lines—and that those demands had not yet been accepted.

Fatah Central Command member Abbas Zaki stated in Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood newspaper As-Sabeel, “The visit [by Kerry to Jordan] is nothing more than consultations; it has nothing to do with launching negotiations.”

According to Kedar, Palestinian demands may have less to do with specific outcomes of negotiations, and more to do with stalling them altogether.

“They don’t accept us, and they don’t want us living in the Middle East altogether. Every Jew who comes here is a colonialist who doesn’t belong here. It’s a matter of existence and not a matter of settlements,” Kedar told JNS.org.

“In the Arabic culture, it is bad that Jews returned to Israel,” he said. “It is worse that Jews established sovereignty.”

Kedar highlights Islamic theology and local tribal codes in his assessments of culture, noting that many Arabs presently deny the existence of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, even though Muslim documents from as late as 1925 assert that the Dome of the Rock was indeed the site of Solomon’s Temple. 

Peace negotiations famously broke down at the Camp David Summit in 2000, when then Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat denied that the Temple existed, an affront both to Judaism and Christianity. Arafat later rejected a peace deal in which 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza would have been handed over to the Palestinian Authority, raising serious doubts as to whether the leader ever intended to make peace to begin with.

“In 1967, Jews liberated Jerusalem from the Jordanian illegal and illegitimate occupation, and this is bringing Judaism back to life, which brings into question the role of Islam which was ultimately meant to replace Judaism and Christianity, according to the Islamic approach,” Kedar said. “It is a challenge on the existence of Islam.”

“Islam cannot exist side-by-side with Judaism or Christianity. In Islam, Judaism and Christianity are not valid religions,” he added.

According to Kedar, the basis for coexistence in the Middle East is when one group understands that the other is invincible. As long as one group feels the other can defeated, there will be no peace.

“Peace is given only to the invincible, because only then will everybody else leave him alone. This is the only peace that exists in the culture of the Middle East,” Kedar said.

“If you are nice, people try to assess if you are nice and strong or nice and weak. If you are nice and strong, people will leave you alone,” he said.

In Kedar’s estimation, understanding and adapting to the local culture is critical to survival in the region. Those who do not adapt to the cultures of the Middle East do not survive in the region. Yet, understanding the Arabic culture, and how it plays a role in peacemaking, has been difficult for Jews who have taken little efforts to learn it, Kedar said.

“We don’t speak Arabic, we don’t teach it enough in schools,” he said. “Our direction is the West. We feel that we are part of the West.  We don’t want to feel like part of the Middle East, particularly when we witness the many atrocities that are taking place daily across the region.”

“When you see the poverty, neglect, dictatorships, the worthlessness of human life, who wants to be part of it?” he added.

To a large degree historically, Israel’s negotiating efforts have been with America.

“We have a cultural toolbox we use to arrange the relationships between people in the West, and acceptance is one of the basic tools, to accept the other, whether you are African American, Chinese, handicapped, women, etc. Acceptance is one of the most important tools in our cultural toolbox, growing up as Westerners,” Kedar said.

“This is a very weak tool in the Arabic cultural toolbox. They don’t accept gays. They don’t accept that women have the same worth as men. And they don’t accept Jews,” he said.

The proper course of action for Israel, according to Kedar, is to “start to deal with [the Palestinian side] by changing our mindset.”

“They will get the message very quickly if we—Israelis—are consolidated and resolute. The Middle East is no place for weak people,” Kedar said.

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here

Posted on July 22, 2013 and filed under Israel, News.