An Exercise in Empathy

For the final day of a course I took in Jerusalem last semester on negotiating Middle East peace, the professor organized a simulation peace summit. Three other Jewish and staunchly Zionist classmates and I signed up to play the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Before the meeting, the professor remarked that the assignment we were about to undertake would be “an exercise in empathy” for us, a unique experience that would have a remarkable and profound effect on the way we view Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He was right. By the end of that simulation, I had not only jettisoned most of my assumptions about negotiating Middle East peace but also gained a deep understanding as to why many Israeli and Palestinian advocacy groups just can’t seem to talk to each other.

To understand the Palestinian mindset when it came to negotiations, I had to drastically alter my Israeli one. Israelis tend to view the conflict in terms of pragmatism and security. This is why pro-Israel advocacy groups often have names like “Americans for a Safe Israel” or “Emergency Committee for Israel.” The overall mantra of these groups is that the Israeli and American governments should only endorse an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement if it produces a secure Palestinian state alongside a secure Jewish state. That is, Israeli territorial concessions are predicated on the ability of Palestinian leadership to produce stability and to stifle terrorism—something that most assuredly did not happen when Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005.

On the other hand, Palestinians view negotiations—and, indeed, the conflict as a whole—through the lens of legality and human rights. This is why pro-Palestinian groups often use names like “Students for Justice in Palestine,” or “Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights.” From the perspective of these groups, the goal of negotiations is to compel Israel to fulfill duties that have already been acknowledged as required under what most of the world considers international law. United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, for example, affirm the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” thereby making any territory garnered by Israel as a result the 1967 Six-Day War entirely illegitimate. As the PLO Negotiation Affairs Department starkly asserts, “the comprehensive settlement to the conflict is embodied in United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338…the purpose of the negotiations is to implement these UN resolutions.”

These two perspectives framed our simulation summit. And as the talks wore on, it soon dawned on both the PLO and Israeli delegations that our peace summit was headed for disaster. At one point, for example, the Israeli side offered us East Jerusalem, a territory it garnered during the war of 1967, in exchange for our dropping the demand for the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees dispossessed during the war of 1948. A few months ago, I would have probably considered this a generous offer. Most Middle East analysts today (and even, as revealed last week by Al Jazeera, the current head of the Palestinian Authority) consider the absolute right of return for Palestinian refugees infeasible. And allowing all neighborhoods in East Jerusalem—including the Jewish ones—to come under Palestinian sovereignty is something that has never been offered before by any prime minister in Israel’s history.

But viewing this offer through the Palestinian lens led me to a very different conclusion. The Israelis, I reasoned, were merely offering to fulfill one of their obligations already required under international law, but only as long as we dropped one of our own demands enshrined in international law, in United Nations Resolution 194. When I alerted the Israeli negotiator to this UN Resolution, he commented that that this document could not possibly still be considered relevant because it is over sixty years old. I reminded him that the Declaration of the State of Israel is also over sixty years old, and I summarily rejected his offer on behalf of my team.

Needless to say, our summit achieved exactly nothing. The Israeli and Palestinian sides framed their demands in two different languages and kept getting frustrated by the other side’s inability to understand them. Indeed, these two mindsets seem to frame the public debate about Israel-Palestine as a whole. Consider, for example, the rhetoric in the aftermath of Israel’s deadly botched flotilla raid in May 2010. The American Jewish Committee, for example, dubbed the Mavi Marmara the “Terror Flotilla” on the basis that the siege that the boat was attempting to break was imposed to weaken Hamas’s hold over Gaza. But pro-Palestinian groups consistently portrayed the activists as civil-rights martyrs and focused more on the injustice of the blockade for the people of Gaza rather than those who ruled over them. As a Turkish film producer who recently created a fictionalized film about the incident told The New York Times, “all we want is freedom for innocent and tormented Palestinian people.”

Even after this summit, I still believe that a resolution to the conflict lies more in a “solutions-based” rather than a “rights-based” approach. But part of resolving this strife is making sure that both sides understand the rhetoric and mindset of the other. The challenge is to find a middle ground between these two mindsets—that is, an overlapping boundary between “security for Israel” and “justice for Palestine.” I may not know where this boundary lies, but at least my experience in the other side’s shoes provided me with a better understanding of how to find it.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.


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