Societal Beliefs and Emotions as Socio-Psychological Barriers to Peaceful Conflict Resolution

An outsider observing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might ask him or herself why, after so many attempts and initiatives have been placed on the negotiations table, the adversaries have failed to reach a settlement. Indeed, the "two-state solution" paradigm has been accepted by the majority of people in both societies for over a decade now (Bar-Tal, Halperin, & Oren, 2010), but the parties appear still far from reaching the desired resolution. Moreover, the solutions proposed over the years of negotiations by both officials and non-officials follow a similar paradigm and have in fact established clear contours to a possible peaceful resolution of the conflict. In fact, the Clinton Parameters from 2001, the Arab Peace Initiative from 2002, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposal from 2008 all identify the need to partition the land along the 1967 borders, transfer control of the eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, find a fair solution to Jerusalem's holy sites, and formulate a just and agreed-upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem (Lavie, 2010). Thus, one might ask: If the solution is so clear, what is holding the parties back?

Our contention is that despite the acceptance of the "two-state solution" paradigm, there still remain very real disagreements that in some cases are quite difficult to bridge, especially with regard to the execution of this general framework. More important, there are the additional underlying forces that inhibit progress toward a peaceful resolution, termed "sociopsychological barriers" (Ross & Ward, 1995; Bar-Tal & Halperin, 2011). One of the first leaders to discuss psychological barriers was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in his speech before the Israeli Knesset in 1977. In that speech, Sadat played the role of a lay psychologist, discussing not only the pivotal role played by socio-psychological barriers in perpetuating the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, but also mentioning the actual cognitive mechanism through which they operate: "distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement" (Sadat, November, 1977).

We view socio-psychological barriers as pertaining to the "integrated operation of cognitive, emotional and motivational processes, combined with a pre-existing repertoire of rigid supporting beliefs, world views and emotions that result in selective, biased and distorted information processing" (Bar-Tal and Halperin, 2011, p. 220). According to this view, which was later supported by empirical findings (e.g., Halperin & Bar-Tal, 2011), socio-psychological barriers lead to processing that obstructs and inhibits the penetration of new information that could otherwise facilitate progress in the peace process.

We suggest a general integrative theoretical framework for sociopsychological barriers to conflict resolution. This framework combines short-term cognitive and emotional elements with more enduring worldviews and conflict-supporting societal beliefs1 related to the conflict, its history and the involved parties. The model points to two major groups of barriers that have an interactive influence on one another.

Conflict-Supporting Societal Beliefs as Barriers

The first category refers to "conflict-supporting societal beliefs," that are directly related to the confrontation, as they evolve during the conflict, perpetuate it, and serve as an ideology within it (Bar-Tal, 2007a, 2013). We will note few of them and focus only on the Jewish-Israeli side of the conflict, though we do realize that in spite of the asymmetry, the same psychological forces are also active on the Palestinian side.

Beliefs about Israel's Goals

Although the societal beliefs that denied Arab rights to the land and refused to recognize the existence of a national Palestinian movement and of a Palestinian entity has ceased to exist within Israeli society, this subcategory of beliefs still serves as a barrier.

A closer look at current Israeli beliefs about Israeli and Palestinian goals reveals that the changes in previous Israeli beliefs is less fundamental than it seemed at first glance. There are many indications that the agreement with the two-state solution does not suggest any recognition in the Palestinian narrative of the conflict or abandonment of the Jewish claim for the territories in the West Bank that were captured in the 1967 war. Furthermore, there are indications that the level of resistance to the Palestinian narrative in Israeli society has been growing in recent years. For example, 2008 poll indicated that a majority of the Jewish public defines the West Bank as "liberated territory" (55 %) and not as "occupied territory" (32 %).

There is no doubt that the prevailing view that the West Bank is not occupied serves as a major barrier to conflict resolution. The perception of the majority of Jews in Israel and a significant segment of the political system that the West Bank belongs exclusively to the Jewish people and is liberated leads to the rejection of the idea of compromise on this land, to the difficulty of leaving this territory and to the feeling that the Jewish people are the only side that contributes tangibly to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see Magal, Bar-Tal, Oren and Halperin, 2013 for extensive elaboration of this point).

In light of the common perception of the territories as Israeli land and the resistance to the Palestinian narrative, it is not surprising that most Israeli Jews oppose major Israeli withdrawal from the territories, any compromise in Jerusalem and the return of even a small number of Palestinian refugees to Israel, despite agreement among the vast majority of Israelis with the vague principle of the two-state solution. They view the solution as onesided, with Israel giving up its own possessions without any significant contribution from the Palestinians to resolve the conflict.

Societal Beliefs about the Image of the Arabs

While the change in beliefs about the goals in the conflict appear to be somehow irreversible, changes in beliefs about the Arabs from the period of the peace process with Egypt and the Oslo Accords seems to be reversible. Since 2000, public polls and political platforms have demonstrated the return of old perceptions regarding the Arabs and the Palestinians.

There are indications that negative stereotyping of the Palestinians has become more common since 2000. For example, if in 1997, 39% of Israeli Jewish respondents described the Palestinians as violent and 42% as dishonest, by the end of 2000 the figures were 68% and 51%, respectively. A study performed in 2008 showed that 77% of the respondents thought that the Arabs and the Palestinians have little regard for human life, and 79% agreed with the statement that dishonesty always characterizes the Palestinians and the Arabs (Halperin & Bar-Tal, 2009).

Since 2000 Palestinians again have been unanimously blamed for the continuation of the conflict and for intransigently rejecting generous proposals for a peaceful resolution offered by Ehud Barak and Olmert. Binyamin Netanyahu expressed this idea in his June 2009 speech at Bar- Ilan University:

Why has the conflict been going on for over 60 years? [...] The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been and remains - the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish People to its own state in its historical homeland […] The closer we get to a peace agreement with them, the more they are distancing themselves from peace. They raise new demands. They are not showing us that they want to end the conflict […] With Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, they keep on saying that they want to "liberate" Ashkelon in the south and Haifa and Tiberias.

Societal Beliefs about Self-victimization

Since 2000 there also has been a return of old victimhood perceptions in Israeli society. This feeling began to evolve in the wake of the second intifada. As noted, the majority of Israeli Jews blamed the Palestinians for the eruption of violence and thought that the Palestinians were entirely or almost entirely responsible for the deterioration in the relations between them. However, this was not the only cause of the deep-seated feeling of victimization that seized most Israeli Jews. This feeling was intensified by the repeated suicide bombings, which claimed many Jewish lives, most of them civilians, during the second intifada and later with continuous firing of rockets on Southern Israel. Here are contemporary examples of this belief: in a nationwide representative sample we conducted in November 2007, 80.8% of Jewish-Israelis agreed with the statement that "[d]espite Israel's desire for peace, the Arabs have repeatedly forced war" (Halperin & Bar-Tal, 2011).

The described views of the public and the leadership reflect the wellentrenched siege mentality that characterizes the Israeli Jewish society. Two thousand years of Diaspora viewed as one long period of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust as its national trauma leave their mark on the collective psyche. The belief that the whole world is against us is directly connected to the ideological beliefs supporting the continuation of the conflict (Bar-Tal, 2007b; Bar-Tal & Antebi, 1992)

Societal Beliefs about Positive self-image as Morally Superior

Israeli Jews continue to view themselves as being morally superior. The Israeli prime minister, the president, and the Israel Defense Forces chief of the general staff emphasized in their speeches to the public their views that the Israeli Army is "the most moral army in the world" (see for example, an interview with Gabi Ashkenazi, then deputy chief of staff, Haaretz, April 5, 2009). The public seems to hold similar beliefs. For example, a majority of the Jewish public (64%) discounts the testimonies of soldiers who took part in 2009 Gaza war that the IDF forces harmed, on orders, Palestinian civilians and structures (Peace Index, March 2009).

Emotional Barriers in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Level of fear

Already back in the early '60s, surveys among Jewish Israelis found high levels of fear (Antonovsky & Arian, 1972), and it has continued to dominate the Israeli Jewish public opinion (Arian, 1998; Bar-Tal, 2001). After the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, individual fear among Israeli Jews increased dramatically (Ben-Dor, Canetti-Nisim & Halperin, 2007). For example, while in 1999, only 58% of Israeli Jews reported that they were afraid or very afraid that they or their family members would be hurt by terror, in 2002 almost all Israelis (92%) felt that way (Arian, 2002). Even in 2004, after the wave of terror had largely dwindled, 80.4 % of Israeli Jews said that they felt afraid to get on a bus, and 59.8% said that they feared being in crowded or public places (Ben-Simon, 2004).

On the collective level, surveys conducted in the last decade have found that a large majority of Israelis Jews still believe that ongoing terror attacks might cause a strategic and even existential threat to the state of Israel (; 85.5% of Israelis expressed this feeling in 2000, 86.6% in 2002 and 83% in 2006 (Ben-Dor et al., 2007). In addition, 80% of the Israeli Jewish public expressed high levels of fear in 2006 of an Iranian nuclear attack that would destroy the state of Israel (Peace Index, August, 2006).

Levels of Hatred

Hatred is less common than fear within Israeli society, but its potential effects are no less destructive. In two surveys that were conducted in 2004- 05, Kupermintz and his colleagues (Kupermintz., Rosen., Salomon, & Husisi 2007) found that around one-third (31.9% in 2004; 38.4% in 2005) of Jewish youth in Israel reported high levels of hatred toward Arabs. Interestingly, similar results were found in a survey of adults based on a national representative sample of Jews in Israel, in which 36.5% reported medium-high levels of hatred toward Palestinians (Halperin, 2008). Surprisingly, these medium levels of hatred remained stable and did not increase dramatically, even following periods of conflict escalation and mutual fighting. To illustrate, in a national survey conducted immediately after the second Lebanon war in 2006, 35.6% of Israelis reported high levels of hatred toward Palestinians (Halperin, Canetti-Nisim & Hirsch-Hoefler, 2009). Similarly, in a survey that was conducted during the last war in Gaza, only 32.7% of Jews in Israel reported high levels of hatred toward Palestinians (See Halperin & Gross, 2011).


The research shows that holding sets of societal beliefs as described, which are part of a conflict-supporting repertoire, produces low levels of openness and adherence to uncompromising attitudes which hinder peacemaking processes. There are also studies showing that sharing certain emotions are related to rejectionist positions (See Halperin, Bar-Tal, Nets- Zehngut & Drori, 2008; Halperin, 2008; Maoz & Eidelson, 2007; Maoz & McCauley, 2009; Reifen. Halperin & Federico, 2008). The described sociopsychological barriers greatly affect the information processing systems of society members as individuals and as a collective group. They lead to a selective, biased and distortive flow of information which in essence prevents the absorption and acceptance of alternative information that could enlighten the situation of both the rival and the holder's own society, and the history of the conflict in a way that could contradict the ideological beliefs and advance new ideas about the necessity of peacemaking.

Through the years, Jewish society in Israel has gone through major changes. Nevertheless, many of the core societal beliefs pertaining to the ethos of conflict and collective memory have remained dominant. The basic reflection of this ideological system is in the well-established view of the majority of Israeli Jews that they are the only ones giving up their own territories and commodities in favor of settling the conflict. This means that the point of departure, even for many of those who favor settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully, is that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, along with their resources, belong to the Jewish nation and Jews are, therefore, the only side which actively contributes to peacemaking. This view explains well the difficulty and reluctance, as well as refusal of some to withdraw from the occupied territories, to divide Jerusalem and to dismantle the Jewish settlements. No nation yields its territory willingly, and the growing readiness of Israeli Jews to withdraw from at least part of the territories is mainly a result of an insight that holding the territories is very costly for the Jewish nation and the state of Israel.

We close this analysis by posing the million-dollar question: How do we overcome these socio-psychological barriers in order to move societies engulfed by intractable conflict into an era of peacemaking? We realize that it is easier to elucidate and illuminate the socio-psychological barriers than to respond to this question with practical implications. Nevertheless we will try to outline a short conceptual response that can serve as a basis for developing more comprehensive thoughts.

We suggest that the process of "unfreezing" usually begins as a result of the appearance of a new idea (or ideas) that is inconsistent with previously held beliefs and attitudes and therefore creates some kind of tension, dilemma or even internal conflict, which may stimulate people to move away from their basic positions and look for alternative ideas (e.g., Abelson, Aronson, McGuire, Newcomb, Rosenberg, & Tannenbaum, 1968; Bartunek, 1993; Festinger, 1957). In our case of conflict, the new idea (a belief), which we call Instigating Belief, has to contradict the long-held beliefs that there is a need to continue the conflict. We suggest that the instigating belief that fuels the motivation to unfreeze is based upon the recognition of the incompatibility of the desired future, on the one hand, and the emerging future and/or the current state and/or the perceived past on the other. Thus the Instigating Belief motivates us to reevaluate the held beliefs and leads to their unfreezing and the possible adoption of alternative beliefs. This instigating belief or beliefs may appear spontaneously in the minds of people without any special circumstances, but usually they come to mind as a result of external conditions in the stimulating context, which forces a reevaluation of the held conflict-supporting repertoire (see the comprehensive analysis of the conception in Bar-Tal & Halperin, 2009).

Specifically, the equation that facilitates openness to alternative information that supports a peace process is awareness that the costs of continuing the conflict exceed the costs of compromise in peace making. Also it is known that the recognition of the costs is weighed more heavily than the recognition of possible gains resulting from peacemaking (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). This principle can be easily applied to the case of Jewish-Israeli society that accepts the principle of a two-state solution mainly because of "the demographic threat" suggesting that the much higher population growth of the Palestinian communities in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority will soon affect the balance of proportion between the two largest ethno-religious communities in the region, and is expected to lead to the creation of a Palestinian majority within the next few decades (Gayer, Landman, Halperin, & Bar-Tal, 2009; Soffer 2008). This realization led to the acceptance of alternative beliefs supporting considerable compromises by known ideological hawks such as Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

No doubt there are other arguments as well as processes and ways that lead, under certain conditions, to unfreezing that later may lead to the acceptance of beliefs that support peacemaking and even reconciliation. In any event this process almost always begins with a minority and in some cases successfully spreads through the society until the ethos of peace becomes dominant. We need always to remember that human beings are the ones that make their minds up to launch bloody conflicts, and that they also have to make their minds up to initiate and finalize a peace process.

1 Societal beliefs are defined as shared cognitions by the society members that address themes and issues that the society members are particularly occupied with, and which contribute to their sense of uniqueness (Bar-Tal, 2000).

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