Working Paper 93-30, October 26, 1993(1)

By Amin Kazak

Political Science Department

University of Colorado - Denver

(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Amin Kazak for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on April 10, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

Editor's note: This talk was given before the Palestinian/Israeli peace accord was negotiated. Kazak is in the process of revising this paper to include his reflections on current events.

Copyright 1993. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

By training I am a political economist. I became very interested in the subject of intractable conflicts two years ago through the Conflict Resolution Consortium's Justice Without Violence project. At that time I looked at Palestinian issues in the Middle East. Now I am involved in a project on the self-determination and the rights of the Kurds.

The euphoria of the peace movement after the Gulf War led some people to a conclusion that all efforts to solve this conflict were likely to succeed. The U.S. was able to impose its will on Iraq--so the rest of the Middle East conflict would similarly be solved. In spite of this, clashes continued between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza.

Does the Arab-Israeli conflict represent a case of acute, unmanageable conflict and if so, in what sense? Second, is there a way that we could make such an intractable conflict manageable? Can we restore some hope in order to heal the wounds that are so deep-seated between the two peoples? How can we resolve such an intractable issue?

Any conflict, whether in Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, or Europe is a pervasive social process of a multi-dimensional character. Thus, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not an exceptional case.

Irrespective of its simplicity or complexity, location, time, scope, and nature, once a conflict manifests itself many procedures and approaches are available to solve such conflicts. Some use force and power to overcome resistance. Other extreme approaches use extermination, genocide, population expulsion, or deportation to achieve a solution. Another procedure entails institutionalized discrimination, as is the case in South Africa. Integration, or assimilation, as has occurred in Turkey, and how Iraq has reacted against the Kurds are other examples of how conflicts may be handled. Of course, in some cases, various forms of negotiation are employed, something that is happening in Latin America to achieve a limited autonomy. Sometimes a third party steps in and serves as a mediator to help resolve a conflict. There are many methods and approaches used to end conflicts.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not an exceptional case. However, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has its own very particular nature, characteristics and dimensions affecting which approaches can be used as a means to resolution.

This conflict has two key dimensions: The dimension of ethnic identity and the dimension of cultural/religious identity. I view ethnic identity separately from culture/religious identity, although they are interrelated. To be even more precise, they are interwoven into a distinctive belief system in that region, one that is difficult to understand. This belief system actually represents Middle East folklore, which must be understood and reflected in any process which seeks to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Ethnic identity can be defined as a group of people conceiving themselves as a race, community or society--distinct from other groups. It does not matter whether those other groups are a minority or a majority, whether they control the political system or not. Generally, ethnicity is based on a vertical psychological boundary. This psychological boundary can create a barrier against co-existence and gives rise to potential conflict with other ethnic groups all the time. This general definition could be applied to any kind of group involved in an ethno-national conflict, whether in Yugoslavia or in Turkey, Iraq, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, or Southeast Asia.

What is the cultural/religious identity? Culture and religion are combined here because the culture or identity of any society is not the result of a social virginity, being born from nowhere. Rather, the cultural identity of a society expresses its fundamental self-understanding--it constitutes the values of the people. Frequently the constitutive values of people is religion, not specifically Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism but rather the original institution of religion. In establishing religions people were looking for constitutional values. Later, religion became a cultural value to certain societies. For example, look at the Western political culture. It has been shaped by Greek philosophy, Roman law, feudalism, and the Renaissance. But this is not a full enough description of Western culture. Western culture also has been shaped a great deal by Christianity, Judaism and by Islam during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict incorporates both the ethnic and the cultural/religious dimensions. The consolidation of these dimensions gives the conflict its own features, character, and political flavor. As a general rule any conflict involving ethnicity and cultural/religious clashes will have the potential for violence and be very resistant to resolution. Few such conflicts have been resolved. Consequently, any conflict of this type, by definition, is an intractable conflict.

Given the nature of intractable conflicts, there is, of course, no easy resolution. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict discourages any kind of a middle-of-the-road solution--as is demonstrated by several factors. First, the conflict has a zero-sum conflict-of-interest problem. The two parties have incompatible goals relating to the rightful, historical ownership of the land of Palestine. These goals are supported by the ethnic and cultural/religious differences between the two groups--differences that run very deep in each groups' identity.

Second, attitudes and other conflict dynamics have created an enemy image between the two parties. This image is reciprocated by each group and becomes self-perpetuating, even among the leadership. This is why most of the leaders of the two peoples have became prisoners of the situation over the past 50 years.

The third factor is the domestic factor, the Palestinian conflict with Israel over territory, which is a very serious aspect of the conflict. The Israeli side sees that there is a conflict over the formula, peace for land. We must remember that this is not a popular policy to all Israeli factions. Equally, on the Palestinian side, there is a feeling that there are limits on a moderate stance in this situation and for pushing for concessions from other parts of the Palestinians against the PLO. We have to not only praise the PLO for being moderate, we have to look at the other side among the Palestinians.

The fourth variable is ethno-nationalism, which I consider a major mobilizing force. A fifth powerful factor in this conflict involves religious/cultural dimensions, which I believe are the greatest stumbling block to any kind of resolution in the Middle East. The same exists on the Israeli side--the Zionist revisionists--tend to regard the acquisition of Judea and Sumaria (the West Bank) as a religious obligation--as God's commandment to his chosen people. Such a stand by revisionist Zionists actually contradicts the doctrine of the orthodox Zionists. Similarly, on the Arab side, while Arab-Palestinian nationalism is still strong, the rise of the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalism--the Hamass--is bound to grow and likely to challenge the existing secular ideology of the Palestinians.

There exists a sixth component to this conflict--the degree of asymmetry between ethno-nationalism and the religious/cultural dimension. In addition to all these components there are intervening variables, which reinforce the six problems mentioned above. But, factors like these cannot on their own hinder the process of conflict resolution indefinitely.

What are these variables? First, there is the role of the great powers. This is a variable that will not necessarily hinder the process of resolution. The role of the great powers involves the degree to which, the United States in this case, cannot participate as an unbiased mediator to bring both parties to the point of reconciliation.

Second, there is the variable of the region's instability. This involves the rise of the radical Islamists, whether in Egypt or Tunisia, in Jordan, the Gulf, Iran, Turkey. This variable has to be considered because it might hinder any resolution, or a middle-road solution.

Thirdly, there exists a variable pertaining to regional expansionism. An example of such regional expansionism is Israel's invasion of Tulibinum in 1982. This, in particular, hinders a resolution process because of the continuing hostility of Israel in the south of Lebanon. Also, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq is another example of regional expansionism and, of course, a great obstruction to the conflict resolution process.

The fourth variable is the inter-power politics between the different states involving the question of who is the broker in the Middle East. Sometimes it is the Iranians, sometimes it is the Syrians, sometimes the Sudanese, sometimes the Egyptians, sometimes the Turks, and sometimes the Israelis. This kind of inter-regional politics impedes the process of any kind of regional resolution.

Of course, there is the existence of the regional arms race. The region cannot be saturated with arms and at the same time be told, "Come on guys--forget about your conflict and be nice guys." The regional arms race has to be considered very seriously.

Another variable is the distribution of water resources. The conflict in this area is not a matter of oil production and exportation only, but of the equitable distribution of water from the Jordan River, which flows through Israel, Jordan, the Golan Heights, and Syria. Likewise, the Tagus River provides water for Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. What will happen if there is a conflict between Syria and Turkey? Will that have an impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict? Any kind of instability concerning water rights within the region can shape the whole process of conflict and resolution. If the Turks claim that water issues should not be internationalized, this will be a matter that is not only related to the Turks and the Syrians, but also to the Palestinians and the Israelis. Thus, we have to look at this conflict from a prism-like perspective to find a real solution.

To conclude, it is obvious that dealing with these factors are more important than looking for any kind of superficial solution for the factors must be understood in order to convert this intractable conflict into a constructive dialogue. All the barriers within the dimensions that I have mentioned need to be discussed in depth. Successful conflict resolution requires the achievement of some of the objectives of all the involved parties. That all parties--even those described as radical and right wing-- should be brought to the negotiation table. Avoidance of these factions will not work in resolving this conflict any more than exclusively dealing with moderates.

If the issues involving this conflict were thoroughly understood, this particular problem could be solved. If we look constructively into this problem then we might come to a certain resolution to the Middle East conflict.