Daniel Bar-Tal. Sinking into the Honey Trap of the Intractable Conflict: The Case ofthe Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Reviewed by Izhak Schnell

How does the dynamic of conflict mindsets change in the management of the conflict in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? This is the main question posed by this book. It asks also questions such as, why do societies develop a mindset that supports the internal group attitudes in the conflict. Why is a society willing to pay the high price of managing the conflict? This study offers a comprehensive analysis of the ways the conflict shapes Israeli identity, Israeli social structure and Israel’s political regime. It focuses mainly on analyzing trends in reformulating the conflict narratives in respect to changes in the dynamic of the conflict since the year 2000. The book is a must for anybody who wishes to understand Israeli society. While social scientists agree that the conflict and the occupation are major formative forces that influence Israeli society, none of the books that describe Israeli society have supplied a deep and comprehensive analysis of the psych-political processes that shape Israeli society in the shadow of the conflict. In this respect, this book is a unique contribution to the understanding of Israeli society.

At the same time, the book uses the Israeli case to demonstrate the forces that shape other societies caught in intractable conflicts. The cases of Sri-Lanka, the Kurd-Turkish conflict and Kashmir are mentioned as examples. It argues that the forces that shape peoples’ mindsets in intractable conflicts apply to all relevant societies. One point that is missing in my opinion is the mentioning of societies that are in the process of solving intractable conflicts like Ireland and Cyprus. These cases have been intensively studied, but not from the perspective of the socio-psychological theory presented in this book.

The introduction briefly mentions the Turkish case and some of the main tenants of the theory. The first section explains how the conflict and the Arab states threat to Israel’s existence created the conflict mindset. Tenets like the belief that the Arab states are committed to destroy Israel, Israel’s survival is dependent on a strong army that can secure Israel with no dependency on external forces, that Israel has to reject the return of the refugees and that Israelis have to learn to live permanently with the conflict etc. are all discussed in the book. In this context, a highly authoritarian political system was established with low level of tolerance to internal opposition and external threats. Arab citizens of Israel were suspected of being a fifth column and were treated in accordance. Under these circumstances, Israelis viewed themselves as the innocent victims of Arab aggression and being under blockade, and the Arabs were dehumanized.

The second chapter of section one shows how the decline in the threats on Israel’s existence and the strengthening of the state decreased the conflict mindset, allowing for the development of positive attitudes towards peace among half of the Israeli public. This is after a period of liberalization in public life in Israel, peace with Egypt that eliminated the threat to the existence of Israel from the strongest Arab country and a leadership that had the courage to change the conflict mindset with an alternative one that allows for compromise and peace. One aspect that could have been widened in the discussion is the effect of globalization. Globalization and neo-liberalism opened Israel to a global economy, which converted Israel into a high-tech start-up nation. In the new economy, the importance of cheap Palestinian workforce for the economy was highly reduced. At the same time, Israel was opened to the flow of information and influences from the world boosting the liberalization process. Civil society organizations flourished with many of them acting against the occupation. Parallel to the liberalization of half of Israeli society, the supporters of the right-wing parties continued to believe in the old conflict mindset. They perceived the peace processes mainly with the Palestinians as an irresponsible risk. It increased antagonism between the two sections of Israeli society in a way that led to violent demonstrations and finally to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.

Section two, analyses the return to the conflict mindset in Israel since the year 2000. The possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state in the soft belly (The Occupied Territories) of Israel in the context of the continued violence of the Palestinians deterred Israelis from trusting the peace process. The return of Prime Minister Netanyahu to power with his rightist conflict mindset strengthened the return of the Israeli society to the conflict mindset. The national religious section in society succeeded in institutionalizing their conflict mindset through a whole set of means. The propaganda that delegitimized the Arabs and the left was also effective, and the policies that weakened the Palestinian Authority all played reinforced the view that peace with the Palestinians is not possible and not favorable since it requires compromise on the heart of Jewish identity. Finally, the rightist coalition made every effort to fill key positions with rightist figures and to strengthen an authoritarian regime that preaches for a Jewish particularistic antagonistic identity. 

Today, about one third of Israeli society favors compromises with the Palestinians as part of a peace agreement, but they are fragmented, adopt apologetical position against rightists, and are blamed that they are disloyal to the Jewish state. The majority do not trust the Palestinians, are willing to accept only minor compromises or believe that due to the settlements any compromise is no longer possible.

Future compromise requires a leader that will be willing to stand behind a narrative that negates the conflict mindset, and/or strong campaigns of civil society organizations for peace, and/or the intervention of a third party, and/or critical events like the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that radically changed the Israeli mindset. Beyond that, I believe that one of the lessons from the book is that reduction in the threats to the country and changes in the political atmosphere result in increased public openness to compromise. 

To conclude, this book explains why it is so difficult to reach a compromise and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It introduces the social-psychological component into the equation. On the one hand, it contributes an important component to the understanding of Israeli society that is missing in much of the discussion in social sciences. On the other hand, it demonstrates how the conflict mindset, explained by Bar-Tal in former studies develops, institutionalizes and is changed by changes in the conflict dynamic. It explains why it is so difficult to change the conflict mindset, but the book leaves us with some sense of optimism about the possibility to change the future discourse.