Arab and Israel narratives of "peace"

An Egyptian political intellectual attempts an objective look at the way narratives of peace and war are used by Arabs and Israelis

He who was last...
On 14 April 2014 09:27

Across the globe and throughout history, policymakers have always employed the word ''peace'' in their speeches. For example, Hitler always presented himself as a peace-seeking leader, who aspired to realize international recognition and who was open to negotiations.

Mussolini made a big promise to give peace and justice to Italy, Europe and the whole world. Many other political leaders and systems have done the same thing. Arab and Israeli politicians, likewise, have always used the word in their rhetoric. In spite of this there is still no peace. Why?

In an important study on the issue, Dr. Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, an Israeli professor of cultural studies, found that while the word ''peace'' represents an integral part of the Israeli just-war rhetoric, the word  is in the service of war,'' that is, it aims at rationalizing and legitimizing war. How?

According to Dr. Dalia, the Israeli peace rhetoric serves war in the following ways:  

1. Israeli policymakers have a tendency to repeat the notion that ''Israeli participation in war is to bring peace or, in a more extreme phrasing, ‘only war will bring peace.' For example,

a.  Shilansky: All the IDF’s operations [i.e., going to war – DGN] are aimed at achieving one single goal – to ensure peace and quiet for our residents in the north.

b.  Begin: [The people of Israel] are united behind the advancing forces, which are exterminating the enemy, victorious, and guaranteeing peace to all of Israel’s citizens.

2. The ''We extend hand in peace'' metaphor: This metaphor, which is often used by Israeli politicians, justifies war “by reinforcing Israelis’ self-image as morally superior peace-seekers forced to go to war after their extended hand has been repeatedly rejected,” Dr. Dalia claimed. For example:

Shilansky: During its entire existence as a people and over the generations of its existence as a state, we have attempted to extend a hand in peace to all our neighbors. They did not respond for many years, and so we were forced to fight, all alone, in order to ensure our existence in the Land of Israel . . . even today, we seek peace. The war in the north was forced upon us. We did not want it and we had no intentions [to initiate] it.

3. The ''breached peace narrative'': Israeli policymakers always repeat a narrative that states ''We ‘the Israelis’ are forced to initiate a new war in order to return to the situation of peace'', argued Dr. Dalia. For instance,

Begin: We ask but one thing: the return of the peaceful green, quiet and beautiful border between Lebanon and Israel, just as it was during the past 19 years. All that pastoral, beautiful silence was totally shattered by those murderers. This is our aspiration. We have grounds to believe that we will achieve it.

4.  Positive self-presentation and negative other-presentation: According to Dr. Dalia, there is a moral asymmetry between the Israelis and the Arabs, constructed of complementary ‘us and them’ components. Regarding ‘them’ there are images such as ‘blood-thirsty enemies’ and a fixation on the belief that ‘there is no partner for peace’; as to ‘us’, the mythic metaphor ‘we extend a hand in peace’.

5. More unilateral than bilateral components: ‘unilateral components’ denotes ''arrangements that focus on the desires, abilities and aspirations for peace of only one side''. The phrase ‘peace-seeking nation’– referring to peace as the objective of Israel exclusively – appears frequently. In contrast, ''terms such as ‘tolerance’ and ‘solidarity’ – references to partners in the peace process – are relatively rare.''

These categories can be applied to the Arab peace discourse.

1. In the Arab media, Israel is always depicted as an occupation force that must be fought. However, in fact, many Palestinians depend on Israelis in earning their living and enabling their children to complete their education.

For example, in the residence I live in now in Poland, I met some Palestinian students who confirmed that they live with Israelis without any problem, and that their fathers work in Tel Aviv. “Thanks to this work, we can pursue our studies here”, Abdullah, a 20-year-old student at the Medicine School of Lodz University, said. 

The Arab media narrative also ignores the fact of innocent Israeli civilians who have nothing to do with wars and who have the right to exist and live happily.

2. In the Arab media, Israel is always seen as an enemy that cannot be trusted and that spies on its neighbors. This hides the fact that Israel has had a peace treaty with Egypt for more than 30 years and that it has not breached it. Also hidden is the fact that Arab countries spy on their neighbors, and even on their own citizens.

3. In the Arab media, Israel is portrayed as a demon. Demons are irrational. They kill, because they just like to kill. This narrative aims at demonstrating Arabs' moral superiority.

However, according to Haytham, a 20-year-old Palestinian student at Lodz University, ''The Israeli army never hits a house on the border, without sending an alarm to its family. ''But why do they destroy it?'', I asked. ''They do this when they have some intelligence information that there are armed groups in the house, that is, when the house represents a security threat.''     

4. In the Arab world, there is also the false notion that ''only war can bring peace.'' That is why many Arab voices always repeat that Egypt and Arabs should enrich uranium and have a nuclear bomb. This narrative justifies Iran's nuclear program― in my view, if there is a real threat to Arab countries, it is Iran rather than Israel.

5. Arabs as morally superior peace makers: In 2010, Egypt's oldest newspaper Al-Ahram ran a doctored photograph that appeared to place deposed president Hosni Mubarak at the forefront of key figures in the Middle East peace talks in Washington.

In the original photo, US president Barack Obama was walking in the lead on a red carpet, with Israel's prime minister Binyamin  Netanyahu, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II slightly behind.

But the state-run newspaper altered the image  to show Mubarak in the lead, with Obama slightly behind him to his right, then  placed it over a broadsheet article titled "the Road to Sharm El Sheikh", referring to the Egyptian Red Sea resort that hosted the second round of negotiations.

The newspaper's editor-in chief at that time, Osama Saraya defended the misleading decision in an editorial, saying, "The expressionist photo is … a brief, live and true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak in the Palestinian issue, his unique role in leading it before Washington or any other".

Finally, I invite both Arabs and Israelis to drop the ''enemy'' narrative and to adopt the family "frame", to use the language of cognitive science. Moreover, let's drop the word ''peace'' and adopt words such as tolerance, solidarity, and humanity.

A Contributing Editor to The Commentator, the writer, currently based in Europe, is an Egyptian poet, actor, and political intellectual. He is also pursuing doctoral research in cognitive science

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