Socio-psychological Barriers To The Peace Process: Collective Victimhood And Identity In The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the center of discussions concerning protracted struggles. The failure to arrive at a peaceful resolution and the collapse of direct negotiations has meant the conflict has been trapped in an ongoing cycle of hostility and retribution. Literature that surrounds the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has predominantly focused on positivist-rationalist approaches to explain a failure of a peace settlement. While notions of power and security can be used to explain the reluctance of territorial concessions and the physical elements of the conflict, they do not provide a satisfying answer as to why a lasting peace settlement has not been concretised. The most recent collapse of direct peace negotiations, the 2014 Kerry initiative, did not offer any renewed hope for improved relations. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu blamed Palestinian leader Abbas for the failures of negotiations and the planned PLO reconciliation with Hamas as being detrimental to peace with Israel. This fuelled anger from the opposition who maintained that Israel is not interested in peace, as Saeb Erekat remarked, “otherwise it would have have taken Palestinian national reconciliation as an opportunity for peace rather than an opportunity for a new blame game.” Its intractable nature has been subject to much deliberation and recent attempts have been made to explore barriers to peace through a socio-psychological dimension.

The apparent inability to move beyond the blame game has begged the question: why? The main impediments to peace concern the issue of settlements, borders, the holy sites in Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees. These issues have been specifically mentioned in negotiations such as the 2001 Clinton Parameters, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and efforts of the 2011 Obama Parameters, which set out clear outlines to a possible peace solution. Ben-Meir,  a professor and leading expert on Middle-Eastern politics, notes that the peace process seems illogical as the same issues have been brought to the negotiation table and both parties recognize the “inevitability of coexistence and presumably understands the general parameters of a negotiated peace agreement.” He suggests that the resolution of the conflict cannot be made by solely focusing on “physical concessions on the ground” as the stalemate of the peace process is deeply rooted in the “psychological dimensions of the conflict.” Social psychology offers an alternative lens in which to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it provides explanations, which are specific to its intractable nature. Halperin provides leading material on socio-psychological barriers to conflict and outlines its relationship with peace attainment by suggesting that “selective, biased, and distorted information processing…obstructs and inhibits the penetration of new information that can help facilitate the development of the peace process.”

Collective and self-perceived victimhood embodies a number of socio-psychological barriers, which arguably makes it one of the most prevalent psychological factors underlying the conflict. Historical collective victimhood can be considered within this category as influencing identity, through past persecution and traumas, into the present. Jewish persecution has occurred across history and geographical regions. In the name of religious and nationalistic agendas, the Jewish people have suffered unjustly leading to the establishment of Israel in 1948. Extensive years of Diaspora, “culminating with the Holocaust as national trauma – have left their mark on the collective psyche,” says Halperin. For the Palestinians, historical trauma is identified as originating from the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) where over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes following the Arab-Israeli war and the creation of Israel in former Palestine.

Socio-psychological literature often alludes to historical events as being the primary condition in identity construction. Volkan, a leading expert on the psychology of protracted conflicts, develops this idea in his research on chosen traumas. He defines this as a shared “mental representation of an event in a large group’s history in which the group suffered a catastrophic loss, humiliation, and helplessness at the hands of enemies.” This is supported through Jacoby, a prominent scholar in the field of victimhood. His theory argues that memory forms identity and can be implemented as a tool for “national unity or liberation.” Chosen traumas are particularly salient as they can be passed down from generation to generation and reinvented in a context that is not necessarily representative of original events. Whilst younger generations may not have direct experience of the original victimization, strong feelings of passion and hatred are felt in the present.

Although many groups have suffered persecution, not all peoples have maintained a collective identity, which is defined from trauma. Volkan addresses this issue and suggests the necessity of a mourning process in conflicts. If this is continuously denied or deliberately rejected then conflicts become stuck in a protracted state. However, if it is successful, losses are accepted and both victim and victimizer can move on. This idea is applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian context when examining identity and the needs of both parties. The Palestinian people have arguably constructed an identity upon loss and displacement and this remains an important issue to address, as demonstrated at peace negotiations that continuously campaign for the Palestinian right of return. The illegal Israeli settlements that are encroaching on Palestinian occupied territory have resulted in beliefs that they have created a state within a state. Following this line of thought, the Palestinians are denied the right to resolve issues and are denied the mourning process because these notions of expulsion still serve as a daily reality. Furthermore, Israeli identity is characterized upon two thousand years of Diaspora and feelings of existential threat where fear as a psychological characteristic has been identified amongst Jewish society in Israel. Israel demonstrates a reluctance to embrace the mourning process, rather than have it denied for them, and instead, Israelis embrace measures that remind society of their victimization.

In particular, historical collective victimhood demonstrates the power of memory or constructed memory in conflicts. Both the in-group and the out-group form representations of one another that are strengthened by memories and validation feelings of victimization can remain dormant or suppressed for generations and can resurface in different conflict situations. Whether collective victimization is a conscious or unconscious identity, this is undoubtedly institutionalized within society and practiced at the state level. It has been evoked for responses in warfare and has infiltrated the rhetoric used by leading politicians. In other accredited studies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, chosen traumas, siege mentality, humiliation, and competitive victimhood were the most salient features experienced by the in-groups and each employed different coping mechanisms to deal with these barriers. The inability to recognize each others suffering and victimization on a macro-level presents itself as an on-going obstacle to resolution.

The careful social construction and maintenance of victimhood offer an element of hope in that measures can be taken to deconstruct this identity and progress forward. If the constructivist view is accepted, as voiced by Jacoby, then victimhood is seen as a choice “to use the experience of harm as the basis for identity, subject to the expectations of a political culture and its power relations.” Jacoby identifies two final stages that victims experience. They either overcome this status by integration and “cease to be victims and become survivors from that point onward,” or they “remain trapped in the final stage of victimhood indefinitely, dependent upon the benefits that accrue to victim status but unable, or unwilling, to move beyond it.” Working towards peace and overcoming competitive victimhood has been demonstrated on the micro-level indicating that conflict resolution efforts should be attempted on the macro-level for future progression. Physical and territorial concessions offer short-term solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, without an understanding or recognition of the socio-psychological elements that impede conflict resolution, lasting peace will not be attained.