Understanding the Middle East: Seven Key Factors
Dudley Weeks, PhD.

January 9. 2009

To most observers, the situation in the Middle East has all the ingredients for perpetual, destructive conflict.  To be sure, those ingredients do indeed exist.  But the situation also has the ingredients for hopeful, mutual beneficial, and sustainable conflict resolution and peacebuilding.  Which of these paths will be taken depends on the perceptions, attitudes and actions chosen by the parties involved.  All of them have the power to make the critical choices and decisions that will determine the present and future of the region.  History is not the decider, nor is any single party, nor,  I suggest, is a God.

I have been fortunate to work in the Middle East with Israelis, Palestinians, and people from neighboring countries who are affected by, and affect, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.  Based in part on those experiences, I would like to focus this Commentary on Seven Key Factors I believe will determine the present and future of the Middle East.

History is always an ingredient of any conflict.  The “history” may be as short as a minute or as long as many centuries or even millennia.  History can be used as a weapon to perpetuate conflict, or it can be used as a teacher to help us learn from what we did or did not do in the past and improve our behavior in the present and future.  Even though parties in conflict may disagree on interpretations of history, they need to understand how those interpretations genuinely influence the present and future perceptions, attitudes, and behavior of all the conflict parties.
Embedded in the history experienced by Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs are ingredients that can promote peace, and ingredients that can perpetuate damaging conflict.  Sadly, a focus on the divisive elements of history has been allowed to dominate.  The common historical roots linking Jews, Palestinians and Arabs are discounted, including that fact they all originally come from Semitic racial stock, and both Hebrew and Arabic come from the same family of languages.
Furthermore, it is a fact of history that Jews, Arabs and Palestinians have experienced periods of cooperation, thus proving they can coexist in peace.   

Even the tragedy of being victimized provides a potentially constructive linkage between Jews and Palestinians.  That statement in no way minimizes the terrible and unconscionable act of victimizing and persecuting others.  To the contrary, the shared experience of being victimized because of who they are or where they live gives both Jews and Palestinians a physical and visceral grasp of the horrors of victimization.  Jews have been victimized throughout history, and Palestinians were victimized when the state of Israel was carved from territory the Palestinians called home for more than a millennium.

If any group of people can understand how victimizing others breeds cycles of damaging conflict it is those groups who have been victims themselves.  The reasonable and wise way to apply that understanding is as follows:  The best way to avoid the perpetuation of victimization is not to victimize others.  Yet, in one of the sad irrationalities of life, those who have been victimized sometimes choose to become the victimizer.  The reason often given is, “Aggression against our enemies is the only way to make sure we will not be victimized again”.  History has shown that strategy does not work. Aggression and victimization breed response aggression and victimization, no matter who strikes the first blow.   
One of the challenges each of us faces in our richly diverse human society is how to develop a secure self-identity.  We all have many aspects of Identity.  Gender, race and ethnicity, culture, belief systems, nationality, family, and profession are but a few.  Each person’s total Identity is a combination of all of those aspects.  Each person has the power to choose which aspects are important to her or him, and which are not very important.  When a person allows one or two aspects of Identity to define the total  Self, many of the decisions that person makes will be guided by those narrow perceptions of “who I am”.  A person will often promote political policies solely as “a Democrat”, or “Republican”, or “Christian”, or “Muslim”, or Jew, or Palestinian, and not on the broader context of the most rational, fair, and comprehensive considerations. 

Being Jewish is not the same as being Zionist (the movement founded in 1897 that has sought and achieved the founding of a Jewish homeland), and being Palestinian is not the same as being anti-Israel.  Yet, pressure is put on many Jews to support anything Israel does, and pressure is put on many Palestinians to be anti-Israel no matter what.  As mentioned earlier, millions of Jews, Palestinians and Arabs have lived together in peace throughout history, and only during the past seventy years when identity and politics have blurred together so completely has damaging conflict become the norm.  If Jews allow themselves to think being “good Jews” means they must support everything Israel does....and if Palestinians and Arabs think being “good Palestinians and Arabs” means they must tear down Israel, a mutually beneficial peace in the Middle East will be one of the casualties.

When I ask Israelis and Palestinians what their needs are, “security” is always near the top of the list.  Both Israelis and Palestinians want to feel secure enough to develop effective lives and societies.  Being “secure” involves many conditions other than safety from physical attack, but that is certainly one aspect of being secure.  A critical fact of life is this: “I will be more secure in our relationship and interactions if I help you feel secure in our relationship and interactions”.  Israelis and Palestinians have been doing just the opposite, expending enormous resources and energy on trying to make the other insecure.  When people and groups feel insecure, they are far more likely to strike out against perceived threats and foes.  An entirely different and more constructive process and result would occur if Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs each committed themselves to a critical goal; namely, developing strategies that focused on “What can I/we do to help the other party feel secure so they will not have a reason for attacking us”.

In conflict situations, what I term “shared needs” are needs all parties share and cannot obtain without the cooperation of the perceived adversary.  In other words, the conflict parties need to work constructively with each other to get some of their own needs met.  Clearly, one of the most obvious “shared needs” in the Middle East is mutual security, as discussed above.  But there are many other shared needs that can serve as building blocks toward cooperation and peace among Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs.  Here are only a few of the many “Shared Needs”.
(a) Survival: If wars in the region continue, no matter who seems to “win” a particular war, violence will escalate and put at grave risk the very survival of men, women, children, and the political and economic viability of the region.  Thus, for all parties to survive in the present and future, a mutually beneficial and sustainable peace is essential.
(b) Economic Development: Israelis and Palestinians are economically interconnected, all living on a small, crowded stretch of land.  Natural resources are scarce and hard to develop, enormous amounts of resources and energy are drained away from constructive development in order to support the military, and needed international development aid is withheld because investing in the unstable region is often seen as an economic risk not worth taking.
(c) Diverse Contributions: Israel has skills and other resources the Palestinians need, and the Palestinians have skills and resources Israel needs.  Neither may want to admit that reality, but it is a fact.  The cooperative sharing of the tools critical for development is a sign of wisdom and strength, not a sign of weakness.      

Modern history has shown that societies with strong nongovernmental organizations are more effective than those in which excessive power is in the hands of highly centralized government.  There are already many grassroots efforts being undertaken by nongovernmental groups involving Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to teaching the attitudes and skills of peacebuilding.  Yet, the influence of these groups is often obstructed by governments who think only in terms of gaining dominance over the adversary.  More support of those nongovernmental groups is needed from (a) Jews within Israel and Jews around the world; (b) Palestinians within the region and around the world; and (c) international organizations.

Extremist elements on all sides of the conflict do not want a mutually beneficial relationship between Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs.  Extremists thrive on violence and are skilled at using it.  Ignoring that fact, a popular yet shortsighted strategy for decreasing the influence and power of extremist elements is to try to attack and destroy them.   A far more effective approach is to develop creative ways to empower those individuals, groups and institutions who understand the essential need for non-extremist attitudes and action, who realize the only hope for a better present and future is to work WITH each other for mutual benefits.  Such an approach weakens the support for extremism in a much more effective way.

As I write this commentary, the Israeli assault on Hamas and Gaza continues, and rockets fired from Gaza continue to fall on Israel.  Israeli and U.S. opposition to Hamas is made less credible by the fact Hamas was democratically elected.  To remove them by force is perceived by many as weakening the credibility of democratic elections. 

If the keys discussed thus far in this Commentary were to be utilized, I believe progress could be made.  Trying to remove Hamas by force increases their support among Palestinians rather than diminishing that support.  As with all wars, the major casualties are innocent civilians, especially those who are already struggling to eek out even the most minimal standard of living.  The more massive and extreme the attacks are, the more embolden the extremists become.

The role of the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian situation is complex.  The U.S. under the George W. Bush administration has basically ignored the Middle East except for making every policy decision consistent with what Israel wants.  If President Obama can be a true peacemaker by helping all parties in the Middle East realize their shared need to establish peace and a Palestinian State, the U.S. might once again play an effective role.  The longer the international community plays favorites by blindly supporting either Israeli demands or extremist Palestinian demands, the harder it will be to bring effective peace to the region.  Furthermore, the international community, especially the U.S., will become increasingly inconsequential in its influence on the parties most responsible for perpetuating the mutually destructive conflict.

There are many wise and effective people within all the groups in the Middle East conflict.  Throughout the seven decades since the establishment of the state of Israel, the voices of those capable people have been drowned out by others who have promoted divisive attitudes and behavior.   Self-serving interpretations of history have been used to justify doing whatever one wants.  There have been elements that refuse to accept the reality that the state of Israel is here to stay, and there have been elements that refuse to accept the reality that Palestinians have also been victimized and have a right to a homeland.  Members of the international community have consistently chosen sides, when the only fair and viable “side” is the side of a mutually beneficial peace in which Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs combine their various talents.

These approaches have not and will not work.  A major test of leadership is found in the wisdom and courage to change when the old ways are not working.  For as Confucius said, “If we don’t change direction we will end up where we are headed”.  The needed leadership can come from Israeli citizens, political leaders, and Jews around the world,  It can come from Palestinian citizens, political leaders, and Palestinians around the world.  It can come from the nongovernmental organizations in the region in which Israelis and Palestinians work together.  And it can come from a revitalized international community committed to supporting what’s best for the people of the region instead of exploitative, self-serving agendas.

The ingredients for a mutually beneficial peace abound, and they can be understood, nurtured, and implemented if there is the will and courage to do so. 

Dudley Weeks

(Copyright 2009: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of legal restrictions.}