Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Israel's dove and hawks: How can we explain the differences?

I like analyzing issues cognitively. It helps me master and understand things that bother me. I have always been intrigued by a particular question: How can intelligent, educated and experienced Israelis, in their analysis of Israel's predicaments, come to diametrically opposing views and conclusions. Although the right/left divide in Israel and shifted over time and takes various forms, the basic world view and plan for what needs to be done remains the same. These positions can be summarized as follows:

For the left, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, at the cost of extensive concessions (giving up land), and this peace is within reach if Israel were to only make the correct moves.

According to the right, peace is currently not achievable with them, even with land concessions, and we need to fight them with toughness, until such time that they give up on trying to throw us into the see, then make peace with them on our terms.

I think that for many people, political views are a function of their temperament and emotions. They have a basic belief about themselves and the world around them, in terms of trust and human nature. Subsequesntly their attitude towards a particular issue will be colored by this. The right/left divide encompasses a wide range of issues beyond the Arab Israeli conflict, and people tend to align themselves among fairly consistent lines. This collection of positions is a function of their basic world view.

In cognitive behavioral science, we know that in many cases, emotions and reactions follow thoughts, and not vice versa. In reaction to a particular event, a person will have particular automatic thoughts about the situation, which subsequently evokes certain emotions-- such as anger, disgust, sadness or fear. These automatic thoughts are dependent on the person's upbringing, experience and personality. They aren't necessarily based on a well thought out, objective analysis, but rather a reflex perception of the situation.

Another related factor is the person's system of values. These values reflect a person's basic priorities in terms of importance. Issues such as life, family, nation, health, spirituality and economic well-being are important to all of us, but we all weigh them differently.

Beyond emotions and values, what are the basic assumptions and thoughts inherent in the rightist or leftist positions? I will try to sort them out in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

1. The nature of human beings.

The leftist believes that most humans are inherently good, if only given the proper opportunity. When they behave badly it is for a reason (bad things happened to them), and if this bad thing is corrected, these people will be good.

The rightist believes that there are alot of bad people out there, who need no excuses for their evil. This people will be bad no matter what you do for them.

In the case of the Palestinians, the leftist says that terrorism is only a result of good people doing bad things because of Palestinians poverty and displacement, which needs to be corrected. According to the rightist, among the Palestinians are lots of evil people who will continue to be evil whatever we give them, and therefore must be fought.

2. Good Will

The right believes that when facing evil, gestures and concessions are interpreted as weakness and only encourage bad people to do more evil things. Thus, in their lexicon, concessions are appeasement.

The left would say that the evil is not really evil but some good people doing bad things, and that concessions are needed in order to get them to stop doing (or supporting) bad things.

The implications of this debate are clearly reflected in our conflict with the Palestinians, when a concession is a "gesture" or "appeasement" depending on your point of view.

3. The future

I heard a telephone call on a talk show yesterday, in which the caller was exhorting the Israeli government to talk to Hamas to stop the rockets. When asked what to talk about, she answered that we need to offer more land. When the talk show host pointed out that we in fact handed over Gaza to them in its entirety, and all we got back were rockets and terror, and that Hamas openly states that their goal is to get rid of us entirely, she answered that she can't imagine that her children and grandchildren are going to have to go on fighting for many years. I think that this gets to the crux of the matter-- the leftist, emotionally and cognitively, finds it too painful to acknowledge that there might be no end in sight to the conflict. This goes against his basic belief in human goodness. He therefore pretends that it is within his power to solve the problem. It is a form of denial from fatigue.

The right states that there will only be a solution to the conflict when the evil people are defeated, however long this takes. Concessions at this point may bring very short term quiet, but will not solve the problem and only exacerbate the problem later. If it takes another generation, so be it. (Interestingly, it is this long term thinking that governs many Palestinians, who are willing to suffer tremendously in the past, present and the forseeable future, for some far-off goal, rather than take what they can get now.)

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