The Oslo ‘peace accords’: a psycho-political perspective

For us Israelis, equality is an impossible mental mission. 

Ruchama Marton
24 September 2013

“Modern Foolishness is not ignorance. Modern Foolishness is the absence of doubt about convention.” Gustave Flaubert

The central and most profound Israeli convention is that 'we' cherish and crave peace. At the same time 'we' are convinced that all others, especially the Arabs (Palestinians) are warmongers. Facts, naturally, must not be allowed to confuse 'us'.

The Israeli-Jewish self-image as spiritually superior and peace-loving is a cardinal element in Israeli society's high self-esteem, and has made possible thousands of cases of state-sponsored killings, injuries, torture, abuse, and dispossession. It justifies the devaluation of the Palestinian enemies and permits the disregard of their human rights.

In remembering my grandparents and their generation, I recollect thinkers like the members of Brit Shalom, who lived their lives according to Jewish ethics, that is to say, ethics which dwell on how to live, what values should guide us in life. These values contrast starkly with the Israeli Zionist ethics of the last one hundred years, which dwell on the question ‘Will I live?’ Living and staying alive, no matter what and how, is the goal. When this is the guiding principle, there is no place for moral questions; there is no place to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. The first question - how do I live? - is a moral one. The second - will I live? - is merely functional.

In referring to the Israeli-Jewish community, we are referring to a 'large group' in Wilfred Bion's terms. The group that describes Israel best is the fight-flight group. The fight-flight group’s basic assumptions (which are subconscious) are that it must preserve itself at all costs, and that this can be done only by fight or flight. This group does not tolerate weakness and expects casualties since the survival of the group is more important than the needs of its individual members. The group may be characterized by aggressiveness and hostility. The leader must lead the group against a common enemy. If an enemy does not exist, the leader will create one.

Simultaneously, the group has a group-work mentality that agrees on its common tasks. In Israel's case the group-work mentality is about peace: the group is profoundly convinced that peace is its primary concern and goal. The result of the enduring co-existence of these two contradictory mentalities (power veneration and peace volition) is the inevitable tension between them. The basic assumption interferes with the group task mentality and generates a dysfunctional group culture.

In order to protect group cohesion in the face of group dysfunction, the leader and the group members must take measures to ensure a firm consensus. When consensus, a general “truth” held to be so by all, is fundamentally at issue, this leads to a mental state whereby the group, tribe or nation, assumes priority over individuals. When consensus becomes both an ideology and a policy, individual freedom is forced to surrender to the will of the group, the nation. In Israel, great pressure is exerted on everybody to be a part of the national consensus, whatever the price of this. Criticism of the national consensus is hardly tolerated inside Israel, and totally condemned abroad. As mentioned above, one of the main pillars of the Israeli consensus is that we are peace lovers. Peace is what we want and desire most.

For example: in 1980 following the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and the impending peace with Lebanon, I observed a great anxiety within Israeli society. When I pointed out that the prospect of peace was being viewed as a threat - or as I named it, the trauma of peace - I experienced much hostility in my society, my large group: "How dare you say, even think, things like that? We want peace more than anything else. Are you not an Israeli?"

Still, one must ask why peace, which is the declared aspiration of Israelis, provoked such a collective anxiety. I have to conclude that Israel does not yet have a mature definition of itself.  In other words, it is not evident to “us” who we are.  Israel demands time and again that its neighbor states recognize it - as if Israeli statehood were not a solid fact.   Having difficulty figuring out one’s identity from within leads to the need to receive an answer from without. The ultimate "not me" is an enemy. Therefore an enemy as defined by the large group is an absolute need. Losing this solid definition through a peace agreement is a real psychological threat.

Another reason for needing an enemy and war is the severe fragmentation of Israeli society into various sectors, which requires war as a tool for inner cohesion, a remedy for social disintegration. The impending peace with Lebanon in the north following the peace treaty with Egypt in the south (1979) exposed the inner threat of fragmentation and disintegration until this took on the scale of a psychological trauma. I could not help but predict a war that would “save” Israel from the trauma of the peace. The war in Lebanon started in June 1982.

In general, people love to be reassured in their conventions and hate to be confronted with ideas and facts that disrupt their adherence to them. The ideas that 'we' are basically afraid of and reject peace cannot be tolerated because this transgresses the rules of the community, betraying its tribal culture and mentality. In Flaubert’s words – this is an illustration for 'Modern Foolishness'.

Several years later, in one of his political speeches during the July 1984 election campaign, the extreme right wing Rabbi Meir Kahane declared: “We will kick out all of the Arabs. The few Arabs which I will permit to stay here will have to be slaves to the Jews, as it is written in the scriptures. But that is not all. I will force them to take an oath not to the Israeli state, but to the Jewish state."  

26 years went by. Kahane was disqualified from running for membership of the Knesset because of the bluntness of his racist views. But his ideas did not disappear; on the contrary. Since 2010, the Knesset and the Israeli government have been dealing with at least three different bills that define Israel as a Jewish state.

The revival of Kahane's ideas in Israel's current politics is the clearest realization of the segregation concept so far.

Sharing power

If the power principle is at the core of a policy of disengagement from the other, then sharing power is the core of an engagement based on respect.

Separation (disengagement), in contrast to segregation, is possible only if the partners are equal. In other words – it can work only if the partners are acting with mutual respect – which means sharing power. Otherwise – separation is a euphemism for segregation, which serves only the more powerful partner, which in the case of Israel, means creating and maintaining the occupation.

I firmly believe and hence want to argue here that the genuine meaning of respect lies in readiness to share power.

In fact, disengagement-separation-segregation has been the policy of successive Israeli governments ever since the establishment of the state. Such a policy maintains the imbalance of power and prevents reconciliation. With this policy there is no need for decency and common goals for the two national groups. The powerful side can and will dictate one-sidedly the rules of the game.

In the last twenty years, the name of the game is the Oslo Process, the outgrowth of the Oslo Peace Accords.  The Oslo Process is an 'as if' reconciliation/peace epoch. In fact it is the ethnic segregation epoch. Closing the gates separating Israel from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has turned out to be a daily reality for the Palestinians since the '90s and has become the main manifestation of the Oslo agreements: establishing a separation wall between the two nations. The Oslo Process and its intermediary agreements implemented, de facto, the process of segregation between Israeli-Jews and Palestinian-Arabs, and allowed Israel to shed its responsibility for what it had done in the occupied Palestinian territory for over almost three decades. This segregation includes most aspects of life: infrastructure planning as well as concrete segregation in the sewage infrastructure and water supply, all according to ethnic criteria.

Peace can be just the condition of no war. It is not necessarily a just peace, nor is it necessarily a relationship based on respect. Some might even consider the relationship between the Americans and the Native Americans “peace”. These relationships are frequently characterized by an extreme imbalance between two sides, who are not really partners at all. One side is strong and the other weak. In a situation like this, respect is replaced by diktat. This suggests that genuine reconciliation is far more difficult to achieve than peace. (The reconciliation process deserves a specific discussion). 

The Oslo Agreement did not die and peace was not born. We, the Israeli-Jewish group, continue to believe what we say to ourselves and the world: that we want peace and that they, the Palestinians, are refusing it. It is easy for us to believe ourselves since the collective subconscious rules and fulfils all its demands – the leader allocates the enemy, the group follows him and supports aggressive militarism on a daily basis by deepening and expanding the segregation and avoiding any chance of reconciliation. For us Israelis, equality is an impossible mental mission. 

The Oslo Process and the endless peace negotiations that have followed it are powerful because they help to shrink the gap between the subconscious demands and the group-work mentality. It is so efficient because the Oslo Agreement actually serves war (the basic assumption) while declaring peace (the group-work mentality).

The documents of Oslo didn't deal with human rights or with equality. Maybe this fact is the primal sin of those accords. The actual beginning of a peace process - apart from the ceremonial signing, demonstrations, and media attention - will have to be reflected in the creation of a different emotional and cognitive system. Perceptions of Palestinians as equal, worthy of human and civil rights just like their Israeli Zionist counterparts – that is the real meaning of the peace process.


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