The impact of culture on the framing on the Israelo-Palestinian conflict:
story-telling and negotiation
The Israelo-Palestinian conflict is probably the main intractable conflicts of the past 60 years. So far, negotiations have always failed to bring durable peace in the region, to the extent that the very goodwill of both parties has been questionned. For a conflict to be intractable, it entails that one or both parties considers at least one of the issues to be dealt with as incompatible with the peace initiative. In terms of relationships, intractable conflicts involve polarized perceptions of hostility and enmity, and behavior that is violent and destructive. The way both enemies frame the conflict, that is to say the way they perceive the conflict will have an impact on their perception of the issues, the enemy and therefore the (absence of) outcome.
What is the role played by culture in conflicts? How do Israelis and Palestinians narratives affect the framing of the conflict? How does it affect the way they negociate and their respective policy-making? To better understand the dynamics of the conflict we will firstly broadly define the concept of framing and analyse its interconnectiveness with culture based on the works of Le Baron and Huntington. This will give us a deeper insight in the characteristics and role of identity in conflicts.
We will then see how the resolution of the Israelo- Palestinian conflict is affected by their respective frames in terms of opinion making, policy making and negotiation strategies. To develop this part, both Hofstede and Huntington’s theories on culture’s role in conflicts will be relied upon along with various theories and previous analyses of the role of culture in intractable conflicts.
Culture can be defined as the collection of values, rituals, beliefs and symbols shared by a community, defining what the group shares in opposition to other ones. Conflicts arise in human relations based on the confrontation of the « we » against the «us », hence the role of culture in conflicts[i]. The way both opposing sides perceive themselves and each other will affect the way the position themselves in the conflict and lead to antagonists interpretations of their respective role in it and especially their responsibility[ii]. This differentiation between cultures defines a civilisation based on both objective (language, history, institutions..)and subjective criteria. The subjective criteria rely on auto-identification from the group members whose attitude towards other groups can be affected by certain intra and extra-civilisational behaviours such as the feeling of superiority/inferiority, fear or self-confidence, lack of familiarity with non-group entity procedures and practices. In a conflict, individual perceptions and interests can be subsidised to the group when confronted to another. These perceptions create the identity frame through which the conflict is seen. It can emphase identity and culture in the conflict and unite the in-group against the out-group around common symbols, history and beliefs[iii]. To analyse the areas of impact of culture in conflicts, we will follow the following sentence by LeBaron : « Cultures affect the ways we name, frame, blame, and attempt to tame conflicts » and analyse the way the storytelling of the conflict affects the way Israelis and Palestinians frame it[iv].
The role of the group’s superiority to individual interests in cases of conflicts is emphasised by the confrontation to the non-group and justifies sterotyping and measures that can serve the groups interests. Given the conflictual relation between Israel and Palestine , both parties tend to rely on and emphasize their own narratives which from their perspective become the only right ones[v]. One of the deepest bone of contention between Israel and Palestine lies in Jerusalem which, in both cases, is the backbone of each one’s storytelling especially since it appeals to religion, beliefs, values and history, all core components of their identity. Israel and Palestine also rely on history of past foreign domination (Sykes Picot agreement) and past persecution (pogroms, Inquisition…)to emphasise contemporary events such as the Nakba and the Holocaust and rally each community around them. An expression for the state intervention in diffusing these stories is to be seen in the school textbooks, one of the greater vehicle for state ideology[vi]. Dan Ba-Ron relied on an extensive comparative study of Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks to establish the use of language on reinforcing enmity. Among other examples, the 1948 War is define as « Al-Naqbah » in Palestine and as « The War of Independance » in Israel. Besides, the centralised educational system in Palestine allows for greater interference of the state in the content of schoolbooks and the Israeli more decentralised system still relies on teachers’ position to justify the content and vocabulary use in class. These narratives also allow for the dehumanisation of the enemy who is described as immoral and therefore deserving the ill-treatement. Expressions of that are the framing of the conflict in respective media, the checkpoints and movement restrictions on Palestinians, the violation of Palestinian human rights and inequalities between settlements and refugee camps[vii].
According to Cohen and Wolfsfeld analysis of the framing of Palestinian intifadas and their treatment in the media and public opinion. Wolfsfeld states that in the case of the intifada, the Palestinians often use the “injustice” frame, highlighting their demands for self-determination, while the Israelis tend to use the “law and order” frame and focus on how to handle the violence[viii].
In the case of the Israelo Palestinian conflict, the trust and fear factors are strong instruments in political and social expression. The fear dimension has been analysed by Hofstede in terms of Uncertainty Avoidance Index, representing the extent to which a culture feels threatened and relies on the beliefs and institutions they have created to confront this perceived threat. He found that both Palestine and Israel have high UAI, with consequences such as increased military preparation, rigid codes of belief and behaviour combined with intolerance towards out-group and out-rule behaviour[ix]. The fear of uncertainty affects the frames through which the conflict is perceived with a higher likelihood for preemptive armament and security mesures. The importance of the national military security in the Isreali society and its concerns with Iran and Syria reflect that predominance of the « security dilemma »[x] which reflects into hatred dynamics where the outgroup is being dehumanised to justify preventive security policies (Six Days preemptive war in 1967).
Conflict resolution itself is affected by these cultural attributes. Countries can be divided in outcom-oriented and process-oriented ones. Both Israel and Palestine are more outcome focused countries with risk-avoiding and self-centered positions. Their attitude towards negative outcomes, criticism or feedback relies on a high self-esteem that prevents compromise and negotiation[xi]. Fear and hostility will therefore impact the duration of the conflict. Another cultural aspect that affects the negotiations is the relation to hierarchy. Arabs scored high in terms of Power Distance Index which means that they will have to await a formal response by a recognised authority for a decision to be taken which implies a longer, more complicate ddecision-making progress[xii]. This is especially true in the context of the Israleo-Palestinian conflict where Palestine has the least amount of political power in the whole region with highly divided authority (Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Authority..).
The impact of culture on the conflict is mostly due to its use as a political instrument to aggregate and pit populations against each other. Because culture is interconnected with identity it has a strong impact on both Israelis and Palestinians who fall back on symbols, values and beliefs to undermine the legitimacy and humanity of the enemy. But the impact of culture also affects the way both governments handle or not the peacemaking process, affecting the intractable character of the conflict. Although the Israelo-Palestinian conflict is about issues such as ressources, territory and national aspirations, it also reflects expressions of religious fervour, historical grievances and national aspirations rooted in a shared culture that respectively affects the frame through whicvh the conflict is perceived and handled. Culture might « not cause the conflict »[xiii]but it certainly plays a multi-layered role in it. A positive perspective is that culture is not only elastic and therfore does not allow for stereotyping but it also fluctuates as contact with other cultures rises[xiv]. Therefore, better understanding of the Israeli and Palestinians’ culture and narratives will not only be a great help in the peacemaking process but its unfixed nature offers hope for future improvement on the societal level too. And the governments, to remain legitimate might someday have to adapt to the people’s narrative instead of imposing their own. But to achieve that, all others issues have to be addressed too and the actual stalemate does not convey hope.
[i] LeBaron, Michelle. (2003). “Culture and Conflict.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder.
[ii] Cohen, Akiba and Gadi Wolfsfeld. (1993). Framing the “Intifada”: People and Media.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, pp. 27-52
[iii] Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The Clash of Civilissations and the Remaking of the World. Simon & Schuster. Hammond Incorporated, pp. 184-185
[iv] LeBaron, Michelle. (2003). “Culture and Conflict.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder.
[v] Dan Ba-Ron & Sami Adwan, Educating Toward a Culture of Peace, The Prime Shared History Project, 2006. Pages 309–323
[vii] Maoz, I. & McCauley C. (2008). Threat, dehumanisation and support for retaliatory-aggressive policies in asymmetric conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 52(1), pp. 93-116
[viii] Cohen, Akiba and Gadi Wolfsfeld. (1993). Framing the “Intifada”: People and Media.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, pp.27-52
[ix] Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Revised and Expanded 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill.
[x] Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The Clash of Civilissations and the Remaking of the World. Simon & Schuster. Hammond Incorporated, pp. 399-400
[xi] Katz, Tal Y. and Caryn J. Block. (2000). “Process and Outcome Goal Orientations in Conflict Situations: The Importance of Framing” in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, pp. 279-288
[xii] Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Revised and Expanded 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill.
[xiii] LeBaron, Michelle. (2003).”Culture and Conflict.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder.