Distorted mirrors and misleading images

When the Oslo process began in 1993, optimists declared that after living in close proximity for so many years, at least Israelis and Palestinians understood each other. Despite the history of conflict and acrimonious violence, and the competing interests and historical narratives, we were ostensibly able to recognize the goals, perspectives, fears, and vulnerabilities of the other side.

Now, over ten years after the first agreements and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, and four years after the process imploded into bitter warfare, this assumption appears to have been far off the mark. On the contrary, there are many signs that both sides maintain highly distorted views of each other, based in part on what academics refer to as mirror imaging, and misinterpretation known as cognitive dissonance. These distortions and misperceptions are central factors in explaining the events and erroneous assumptions of the Oslo negotiations, their catastrophic end, and the major obstacles in picking up the threads for future peace efforts.

>From the Israeli end, in 1993 the dominant assumption was that most Palestinians, like most Israelis, were prepared to make major and pragmatic compromises in order to end the conflict on the basis of the two-state solution. In accordance with this mirror imaging, which was shared by many American and European officials and analysts, mutual compromises on the toughest issues–Jerusalem, borders, settlements, and refugees–would take a few years to reach, but were within the realm of the possible.

These assumptions were echoed by leaders such as the late Yitzhak Rabin, who assured Israelis that the struggles over legitimacy and historical narratives, and the bitter clashes over responsibility for decades of warfare, were now behind us. Palestinian leaders, they declared, were also committed to looking forward. The Israeli approach to Oslo was also predicated on the assumption that the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership, and Yassir Arafat in particular, would deliver the concessions necessary for a permanent status agreement. If Arafat and others still used the language of conflict and delegitimization, and refrained from discussing the inevitable compromises in public, this was dismissed as no more than a temporary tactical decision.

What did the Palestinian side expect from Israeli society? For Israelis, it is very difficult to judge, but it appears that the political and intellectual leadership saw a society that was committed to what was known as post-Zionism. In the 1990s, Israel’s newspaper of record, Ha’aretz, emphasized the theme of post-Zionism, and many secular academics joined the ranks of this movement.

In addition, from the outside and also from within, Israelis appeared to be deeply divided between religious and secular, rich and poor, left and right. In May 2000, major demonstrations against the Israeli military presence in Southern Lebanon resulted in the unilateral withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces.

To the degree that these images reinforced the dominant perceptions of Israel among Palestinian and other Arab leaders, they were able to ignore the evidence that many of these themes were overdrawn and overemphasized in Ha’aretz, in broadcast media, and among some Israeli academics and intellectuals. The less visible but broader commitment to the core Zionist ideology of renewed Jewish sovereignty and independence, and to the common threads linking diverse groups, was largely overlooked in a manner that is readily explained by cognitive dissonance.

These systematic distortions were amplified by many of the interactions that took place during this period, including track two discussions, informal negotiations, and people-to-people meetings sponsored by third parties–which tended to include primarily like-minded Israelis and Palestinians. The majority of Israeli participants came from the self-declared peace camp of the Labor party and further to the left, and Palestinians tended to be part of or aligned with Arafat’s Fatah organization. While a small group of radical Israelis were regular visitors in Arafat’s headquarters, they were highly unrepresentative of the Israeli street. Similarly, Palestinians linked to Hamas and other groups were not particularly interested in talking to Israelis about compromise, and the Israelis in these discussions also formed a distorted image of the Palestinian street.

As a result, the Palestinians met relatively few Israelis from the center and right of the political spectrum who were skeptical about the negotiations and absolutely opposed to giving up Jewish historic claims in Jerusalem or accepting responsibility for Palestinian refugee claims. When these views turned out to reflect those of the majority of Israelis, who reported to their military units, avoided anti-government demonstrations, voted twice for Sharon, and demand unilateral separation, Palestinians appeared to be taken by surprise. At the same time, the Israelis involved in these activities were unprepared for the depth of Palestinian rejectionism, and the degree to which historic positions on the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty, Jerusalem, and refugee claims remained dominant.

Now, after almost four years of bitter violence and incitement, the scale and impact of these misperceptions and their huge costs are at least visible. An intense debate is taking place in Israel about Palestinian and wider regional attitudes and objectives, and much of the accepted wisdom is subject to intense scrutiny. There are also some signs that Palestinians are questioning dominant but erroneous views of Israel. And although some dialogues and track two frameworks are still limited to unrepresentative groups of like-minded Israelis and Palestinians, the avenues for exchanging views are expanding. Compared to the myths and misperceptions that prevailed in the past, this is an improvement.