What Conflict Resolution Theories Can Offer as a Different Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Yehuda Amichai’s poems wrestle with the essence of the human condition. In “The Place Where We Are Right,” he wrote:

From the place where we are right 
Flowers will never grow 
In the spring. 
The place where we are right 
Is hard and trampled 
Like a yard. 
But doubts and loves 
Dig up the world 
Like a mole, a plow. 
And a whisper will be heard in the place 
Where the ruined 
House once stood.1

Amichai reminds us when we only approach “the other” with the belief that ours is the only way, our encounters are “hard and trampled.” Instead, he suggests we meet in “doubt and love.”

Conflict resolution offers numerous theories echoing this notion of meeting “the other.” Its insights deserve to be better utilized in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including by the Biden administration. Conflict resolution theory analysis does not look for simple reductionist lines; instead, it resides in the nuanced grey of interpersonal interaction, where truth and solutions dwell, awaiting to be brought to the surface. Conflict resolution theories do not necessarily provide answers to mitigate and end conflict; they provide invaluable tools for better analyzing and for suggesting how to diminish cause and symptoms.

The five pillars of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that need to be resolved are: borders; security; refugees; natural resources; and Jerusalem. Other dynamics affected by these pillars call for attention with equal imperative. In many ways, the most intractable forces preventing an agreement from being reached are emotional and psychological factors. They include fear, mistrust, trauma, responsibility for one’s actions, the breaking down of myths, and a deeper understanding of “the other.” Elise Boulding adds, we need to employ emotional and affective modes of thinking, along with freedom of imagination.

In On the Causes of War, Hidemi Suganami discusses the role of territorial disputes, history of rivalry, and weakened voices of peacebuilding that contribute to war. All are present in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, this conflict is a textbook example of Edward Azar’s Theory of Protracted Social Conflict: clashes between different identity groups, basic needs not being met (including security and recognition), and international linkages and interests all complicate this conflict.

Israelis and Palestinians engage in what Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope call “psychological distance,” temporal, spatial, and interpersonal. Since the Oslo Accords, separation has grown, increasing distrust, suspicion, and hate. If this was not challenging enough, Palestinians and Israelis both apply Albert Bandura’s “moral disengagement,” rationalizing harmful acts toward “the other.” This is done by the use of palliative or advantageous comparisons to justify their own harmful actions committed against the other side, by comparing those actions to something they perceive as much worse “the other” has done to them. Bandura also explores moral justification, euphemistic labeling, diffusion of responsibility, displacement of responsibility, minimization of and ignoring consequences, dehumanization, and attribution of blame. Palestinians and Israelis are experts utilizing these tactics.

All of this is further complicated by how Israelis and Palestinians use language. Palestinians and Israelis are an example of anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s theory of “high-context” and “low-context” cultures, which attributes cultural influences on how communication is used and understood; how easy it is for people from two such cultures to talk past each other without realizing it. Raymond Cohen spells this out in Culture and Conflict in Egyptian-Israeli Relations: A Dialogue of the Deaf. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is essential to “translate” not only the meaning of the words, but also how messages are delivered and heard.

All of these obstacles contribute to this ongoing struggle and clash. However, as stated above, the emotional issues of fear, mistrust, trauma, responsibility for one’s actions, the breaking down of myths created by both sides, and the acknowledgment and a better understanding of “the other” all need to be aired to create any real chance to mitigate this conflict.

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann call on the need to move from an assertive, competing focus on self toward cooperation, accommodation, and concern for the needs of “the other.” That is clearly easier said than done when it comes to this century-long conflict. The question—the challenge—is how to get there?

Essential to address psychological drivers in conflict is the utilization of empathy, the capacity to understand the feelings and perspectives of “the other.” When applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, empathy is hard, harder than throwing a stone, or engaging in price tag attacks. Convoluting this is the suspicion if one recognizes the fears and pain of “the other” it will diminish one’s own legitimacy, as one’s actions are also the source of the pain and fear of “the other.”

Michael Thomson is an alumnus of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where Jews and Arabs, Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans, and international students study and live together to become environmental leaders. Reflecting, he writes: “One of the most impactful takeaways for me with those discussions was how to accept and attempt empathy for others’ fears without feeling like those fears were in competition with your own. We had a guest facilitator give a talk on the dangers of “yes, but…” thinking, asking, ‘what happens if we say yes, period?”2 This approach, as another Arava Institute alumna, Dana Rassas, says is, "one of the simplest and hardest to do concepts."3 It needs to be learned, practiced, and utilized as a very intentional skill. However difficult, this approach by both Palestinians and Israelis would have a profound effect.

To reach such a transformative moment requires creative problem solving, a reduction of prejudice, a willingness to accept facts no matter how painful, and respect for and from “the other.” All these reside at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy triangle lie security and safety, as well as basic physiological needs. Palestinians and Israelis constantly feel their security and safety are threatened, and many Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, have unmet physiological needs. The challenge reads like Knots by R.D. Laing, in that the bottom-tier needs must be fulfilled before the top tier of Maslow’s triangle can be implemented, while the top-tier needs can’t be fulfilled before the bottom-tier needs are fulfilled: an interminable Catch-22, a circular knot that is hard to escape.

Donna Hicks, the author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, writes:

          The desire for dignity is universal and powerful. When dignity is violated, the response is likely to involve aggression, even violence, 
          hatred, and vengeance. On the other hand, when people treat one another with dignity, they become more connected and are able to 
          create more meaningful relationships.4

The 19th-century Islamic scholar al-Alusi taught “everyone and all members of the human race, including the pious and the sinner, are endowed with dignity, nobility, and honor, which cannot be made exclusive to any particular group or class of people.”5 Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, express the idea all humans are created in the image of God, Imago Dei, b’tzelem elohim, ʿalā sūratihī. This powerful and profound value can help break the circular knot discussed above.

Gordon Allport’s Contact Hypothesis states that negative views and attitudes can be reduced between groups when there is contact between them. This approach is enhanced by following Dr. Stephen Covey’s insight: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood."6

In his research on Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people NGOs,7 Ned Lazarus demonstrates the positive impacts of those encounters. Referencing a report by USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, Lazarus found overwhelming evidence of a greater willingness to work for peace, increased belief in the possibility of reconciliation, expanded trust and empathy for, and improved knowledge and acknowledgement of “the other,” all underscoring the invaluable role of such encounters. It flies in the face of BDS (Boycott, Disinvest, Sanctions) and any policies that make it harder for Israelis and Palestinians to meet. BDS is the antithesis of Contact theories. 
For many Israelis, in fact the very ones who need to have their minds changed vis-à-vis Palestinians, BDS plays into their narrative that the world is against Jews when Israel is singled out and shunned disproportionately. If its strategy is to end the occupation, its tactic reinforces the opposite. That said, the status quo is neither sustainable nor just; a political solution that is sincere, just, and righteous8 is what is required.

Many organizations9 involved with Contact initiatives work together under the umbrella of the Alliance for Middle East Peace which is working to promote the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. John Lyndon, ALLMEP’s executive director, insightfully points out, “We spent ten times as much per person/per year, in Northern Ireland, starting twelve years before a peace agreement was reached.”10 At the end of 2020, the U.S. Congress passed the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, authorizing the U.S. contribution to that fund, which will significantly leverage and increase support for Palestinian-Israeli people-to-people activities.

An important element utilized by these organizations is the “dual narrative.” It is essential that Israelis and Palestinians better grasp the narrative of “the other.” Narratives provide frames of reference to our lives; an anchor to help us make sense of our world. When confronted with narratives that contradict our beliefs, we may resist. Therein lies the power of the dual narrative: It challenges how we contextualize our lives.

The dual narrative implies two sides. That does not mean both sides are entirely monolithic; multi-narrative is more accurate. A spectrum of viewpoints and that range of perspectives should never be lost.

For Palestinians, the dual narrative, which often focuses on the past history of the conflict, should not be seen as avoidance of current realities. Jonathan Kuttab writes that dialogue must take into account the realities of asymmetry and never be a substitute for change when the status quo is untenable.11

Narratives reside in complexity; nonetheless, they can be distilled. The two narratives can be summarized as “homecoming” versus “invasion and expulsion.” Those vastly different experiences and perceptions cloud so much of how each side discerns itself and understands “the other.” Homecoming is something someone does, while invasion and expulsion is something that happens to you. Follow the line of thought on any issue in this conflict, and it will most likely end at those two perspectives. Akin, for Israelis they are “getting/gaining” something, while Palestinians are “losing/giving up” something. One is winning, the other is losing. It is easier to be more flexible and magnanimous when one is gaining than when losing.

James Parkes, the 20th-century British Anglican theologian, devoted his life to combating anti-Jewish sentiments in Christianity. A Zionist as well, he wrote perceptively in End of Exile (1954):

           At some time it will be realised in Israel that the material advantages which they brought (which were substantial) and the good will which 
           they offered (which was genuine) still fell short of what the Arab population regarded as the minimum to which they were entitled. For 
           to the Arab majority they did not touch the fundamental issue, that ‘their’ country was to be theirs no longer. At best they were to have 
           ‘equal rights’ in it; in all probability they were to become a minority, both in power and number.12

Ironically, both national movements are the stepchildren of 19th-century European nationalism. Zionism is the unfolding of an unbroken connection of the Jewish people with the land of Israel for more than 3,000 years. The Zionist movement planted a 2,000-year-old dormant seed at the end of the 19th century because of the failure of Jews to be accepted in post-emancipation Europe, including deadly pogroms at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, culminating in the Shoah. At the same time Political Zionism was developing, Arab nationalism became a force within the Arab world, particularly as a counter to the 500-year-old Turkish Ottoman Empire occupation of much of the Middle East, including the Arab population residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Part of Palestinian opposition to Zionism was their perception of it being an imperial foothold in the Arab world as a result of the Zionist movement’s alliance with the British (Balfour Declaration) and the growing number of European Jews moving there. The impression that Zionism represented colonialism prevented the Arab population from understanding, much less accepting, the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land, as well as missing the intense desperation Zionists felt to find a place where Jews could be safe. There was further insult when after liberation from the 500-year Ottoman occupation, rather than actualizing their own Arab identity (the Ottomans were Turks, not Arabs) the local Arab population came under the rule of the British.

Many Israelis blame Palestinians for “never being able to agree to a compromise, despite very generous offers.”13 This view misses the reality for Palestinians: they justifiably feel their homeland has been — and continues to be — taken from them. As discussed above, it is harder to compromise when on the losing side, as they are. Israelis’ claim that there is only one Jewish homeland, while the Arabs have many countries fails to understand that while Palestinians are part of the larger Arab world they also are tied to a specific geographical location. While not a fully formed national identity, when Zionists began to arrive, if they saw themselves of any nation, it was Syria.14 However, as the decades and the conflict rolled on, that identity has developed into a clear Palestinian national identity.

Both sides have engaged in lethal combinations of denial, hate, and violence. For too long, the Israeli narrative has been that the majority of Palestinians left during 1948-49 encouraged by Arab leaders in order to make way for a massacre of Jews, while the truth is 70 percent of Palestinians left because of direct Israeli military action and/or fear of further massacres.15 At the same time, the Palestinian and Arab peoples have turned blind eyes to vicious anti-Jewish stereotyping that too often has led to deadly outcomes.

In the words of Eric Liu, the dual narrative creates a channel in which both sides “merge their half-blind perceptions and create a more truly binocular system.”16 Related to this is Robert J. Nash’s Moral Conversation and its three stages:

  1. First, find the truth in what you oppose.
  2. Find the error in what you espouse.
  3. Then and only then express the truth in your view and the error in the opposing view.17

Such a conversation between Palestinians and Israelis could result in the following:

            While we the Israelis accepted the Partition Plan of 1947, we in no way acknowledged, much less accepted, legitimate Palestinian 
            yearnings. By the same token, we the Palestinians in our rejection of the Partition Plan of 1947 did not take into consideration or recognize 
            the legitimate aspirations of the Jewish people.

With heavy hearts, we both realize that we have each been blinded by our own ambitions, however legitimate, and by extension the pain and suffering we have caused each other.18

Such a statement, in the words of Gloria Steinem, “uncovers the distance between what is and what could be.”19

A student asked the Hassidic Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, “We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. How can I do this, if my neighbor has wronged me?” The rabbi answered, 

                    You must understand these words correctly. Love your neighbor like something which you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark 
                    from the original soul…” The Disciple went on asking, “But if I see a person who is wicked before God, how can I love him?”

                    “Don’t you know,” said Rabbi Shmelke, “that the original soul came out of the essence of God and that every human soul is part of God? And will 
                    you have no mercy on him, when you see that one of his holy sparks has been lost in a maze, and is almost stifled?20

A century after Rabbi Shmelke, the Reverend Martin Luther King, elaborating on that same biblical verse to love your neighbor, wrote, “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.”21 In Perkei Avot, “judge everyone favorably,”22 to which the Talmud adds, “One who judges others favorably in the scale of merit is judged favorably by others.”23 That is to say, the interpersonal dynamic can profoundly change when we switch our focus from solely accusing others of wrong and try better to understand them. The physical and psychological barriers that evil acts build can only be torn down if both parties take the difficult but necessary step as they embrace their own real anger, pain, fear, and distrust, to also at the same time reach across the chasm.

To achieve that is no simple matter, and the pushback and resistance is great. The conflict resolution theories and approach explored here are not a panacea to mitigate and end this conflict; rather, they reflect a path not yet fully embraced. A path that is not “hard and trampled,” which Israelis and Palestinians are all too familiar with, but rather the other path, which Amichai mentions: the path of “doubt and love.”


1 Kalmonofsky, Amy, ed. Sexual Violence and Sacred Text. Cambridge, MA: Feminist Studies in Religion Books, 2017, page 64.

2 Email from author, December 29, 2019. 
3 Email from author, January 8, 2020. 
4 Hicks, Donna. “Dignity.”

5 Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. “Human dignity in Islam and its impact on society.” The Straits Times. October 25, 2017. islam-and-its-impact-society 
6 “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Franklin Covey. 
7 Lazus, Ned. “A future for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding.” British Israel Communications and Research Center. July 2017: page 12. 
8 Jeremiah 4:2 
9 Alliance for Middle East Peace. “Our Members.” 
10 Lyndon, John. Email from the author. January, 17, 2020.

11 Kuttab, Jonathan. “The Pitfalls of Dialogue.” Resource Center. National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. 
12 Parkes, James. End of an Exile. New York: Library Publishers, 1954. Page 41.

13 Times of Israel staff. “Likud hopeful Sa’ar says two-state solution is an ‘illusion.’” December 16, 2019. 
14 First Palestine Arab Congress in Jerusalem (1919). The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: An Interactuve Database. Economic Cooperation Foundation.

15 Shezaf, Hagar. “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsions of Arabs.” July 5, 2019. 
16 Liu, Eric. “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.” New York: Public Affairs, 2017. 
17 Email to the author, January 3, 2021. 
18 Cohen, Michael. “November 29, 2013.” Jerusalem Post. November 28, 2013. 
19 Ibid. page. 120.

20 Cherry, Shai. Torah Through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. 2007. page 29. 
21 Meurn, Cat. “Love and Forgiveness in Governance: Exemplars: Martin Luther King, Jr.” Beyond Intractability. 
22 Perkei Avot, 1:6. 
23 Talmud, Shabbat, 127b.