The Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Israel-Lebanon Vortex and the Challenge to Identities

The short-term political goals of either side in the deepening crisis in southern Lebanon may be achieved by military strategy, but more violence will only deepen the problem in the long run. The solution to a lasting peace requires meaningful change, and it must start with leadership. David Hulme examines the crisis in light of new theories about how minds can be dramatically changed.

The latest round of Middle East violence on the border between Israel and Lebanon is yet one more demonstration of the need for peace based on focused understanding and appreciation of the differences between the antagonists. Whether it’s Hezbollah, Hamas, the PLO or Israel, none of the immediate parties will achieve lasting peace without recognition of an unavoidable truth: identity and ideology matter to everyone. That’s because from an early age identity is something we establish, maintain and extend in our search for psychological security. Then ideology soon comes along to tie together the loose ends of identity formation, as Erik Erikson—the father of modern identity studies—would say. He saw identity and ideology as two sides of the same coin. Take away a person’s identity, and he or she will set about its recreation. There can be no attempt to destroy identity that will not produce further conflict. What is happening in southern Lebanon, Israel, Gaza and the West Bank is an attempt by all parties to destroy the Other’s identity.

Albert Einstein saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as between “two rights” and secretly lent his name to efforts to resolve it. Despite his balanced assessment and his support for a peaceful resolution, there has been little progress in the decades since he made the observation. Why? It’s been said that “no student of Middle Eastern international politics can begin to understand the region without taking into account the ebb and flow of identity politics” (Shibley Telhami and Michael Barnett, Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, 2002). Identity and ideology are central elements of the Middle East dilemma, yet they are rarely addressed in the search for a solution. That’s the basis of Identity, Ideology, and the Future of Jerusalem, published by Palgrave-Macmillan (2006).

Looking at the biographies of 14 key players on both sides of the more-than-100-year Arab-Zionist conflict, the book focuses more on the parallels than the differences. These leaders, from Zionism’s Theodor Herzl to Hamas’s Shaykh Yassin, from Israel’s David Ben-Gurion to the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, lived lives with parallel goals for their people, and with identities that were more akin than apart. Understanding the role that identity and ideology played in their lives—leaders at the center of the impasse—is crucial to discovering the way forward in today’s ongoing conflict.

The concluding chapter shows how recent findings in brain research may provide hope for resolution. Behavior modification studies have shown that rewiring of the brain is possible through self-directed action. How such rewiring might be achieved where political impasses rest on deep-seated issues of identity and ideology is hinted at by Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist Steven Pinker. He observes that the new discoveries in neuroscience explain “what makes us what we are” and also invite us to “ponder who we want to be.”

Identity asks and answers the question “Who am I?” But identity awareness is only the starting point in resolving intercommunal problems. If there is to be hope for reconciliation and resolution in any of the world’s identity-based conflicts, then “Who am I?” must lead to the much more important question, “Who should I be?” This is about initiating a process by which leaders and publics come to understand the role of identity and ideology in their lives. Because the identity-ideology nexus is not easily self-understood, it requires a process of education and self-examination to bring its reality and consequences to the surface. The resulting change of heart in the personal identity-ideology relationship is the first essential step to broad political change.