I key theme of my blog is that breakthroughs are caused through a shift in our thinking. This applies to international conflicts, in which warring parties often engage in a zero-sum conflict, while a win-win solution seems obvious to an outsider. For example, in the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, the obvious mutually beneficial outcome both sides could accept in the long run would be a two state solution- a Jewish state next to a Palestinian state. This solution would allow Israel to continue to excel in innovation and technology, while the Gaza strip could develop its coveted seashore to become the Singapore of the Middle East, as many have suggested. So why is this vision so hard to achieve?
In a class I took at university called “Psychological Barriers to War”, professor Eran Halperin gave a very compelling answer: each conflicting party is forced to justify its competing narrative, in order to prevail. Each side’s thoughts and feelings motivate it to take the actions needed to prevail. In long lasting conflicts, each nation’s bias and distorted information crystallize in what Halperin calls a “pre-existing repertoire of rigid, supportive beliefs, world views and emotions” regarding the conflict (creating a belief in an existential, zero sum war), the other party (causing each side to view the other as barbarians or subhuman’s) and about themselves (causing each side to feel victimized). Each warring side’s simplistic, one sided picture of reality becomes a lens through which it processes any new information. Each side’s rigid set of beliefs is what makes peace efforts so challenging.
For warring parties, it therefore becomes a real challenge to change their narrative to their ongoing conflict, unless of course the people are able to think in an adaptive and flexible manner. This flexibility is much more likely in an open, democratic society in which people enjoy freedom of press and the right to express opinion counter to the status quo. In contrast, in oppressive regimes, it is intolerable to express any personal narrative, let alone opposition to the political path of its leaders.
So what is the solution? In my view, this is where peace loving people and nations can make a huge difference. I am not speaking about a specific war here, but about general conflicts that seem irresolvable. As mentioned, I am convinced that the ability to adjust our thoughts and feelings and thereby seize opportunities is the key to finding peaceful solutions in such instances. By promoting the enforcement of human rights and pluralistic thinking in a non discriminatory way, outsiders can really help promote the kind of environment that would encourage peacemaking.
For example, by investing their time, money and efforts into helping warring parties create an atmosphere that promotes agile thinking, they will address the psychological barriers that would otherwise prevent any peaceful efforts in the future. This could include supporting democratic institutions, multiple news outlets and distribute a variety of opinions, and open minded education systems for all ages, to name a few in some regions. This process may take generations as it addresses a deep, underlying cause of war – not like a cease fire, which spares casualties but leaves each side’s warring mentality firmly in tact. However the end game is promoting a culture of tolerance and acceptance.
Within this spirit, believe the world outside world plays an instrumental role in resolving conflicts between warring parties. I applaud all those who truly care about human life, freedom and prosperity. At the same time, I oppose all those people who take sides with a warring party, not because they care about innocent victims, but rather despise the opponent. By doing so, knowingly or unknowingly, they are acting from the same kind of prejudiced belief system as the warring parties, thereby fueling the conflict with more hate and violence. This is for example the case when people use every opportunity to criticize Israel, but seem indifferent when hundreds or even thousands of innocent people get killed in other conflicts around the world. Within this spirit, I propose the key determinator as to whether they are supporting peace building, or in fact inciting violence, lies within the intentions and motivations of their actions.