Putting Israel on the couch


JERUSALEM — When Israeli psychologist Irwin Mansdorf begins a session of marriage counseling, he begins with a clear, if difficult, task for both spouses.

“You have to put yourself in the seat of the person sitting opposite you,” Mansdorf tells them.

Without that attempt at understanding the other person’s perspective and take on history, no matter who may be right or wrong on specific issues, there’s not much chance of reconciliation.

These days it seems Israel could use a little time on Mansdorf’s couch.   

Right now in Israel, Mansdorf says, the vast majority of Israelis feel that their country’s actions and motives in last month’s three-week war in Gaza have been dramatically misunderstood by the world.

Rarely, Mansdorf and other Israelis say, have they felt so isolated by the broadsides of criticism they have faced.

In the last week, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court announced he was beginning to examine whether the ICC might have jurisdiction over Israel’s actions in Gaza and the prime minister of Turkey, a solid ally of Israel, stormed out of Davos over the passionate issue of Gaza.

Even the academic community in America is pondering an unprecedented academic boycott of Israel for what is widely viewed as a brutal campaign.

But in Israel, the offensive in Gaza receives almost unanimous support.

“I could say that most Israelis are still looking at the reaction of the world in a jaw-dropping manner,” Mansdorf said.

Mansdorf has spent years counseling victims of violence in Israel and runs a  program for American and British Jewish children visiting Israel during which he sometimes has moderate Palestinian speakers address the students. He knows this psychological terrain.

At the same time, Mansdorf holds some views that many Palestinians would see as evidence that even the psychologist finds it hard put himself in  the seat of the person opposite. He refers to “the Arab self-destructive mentality” and believes that there is “some logic” to some of the ideas of the assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, a former member of the Israeli Parliament who advocated driving Palestinians out of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

At a time when President Barack Obama has asserted a desire to restart a peace process fully eclipsed by conflict, his special envoy George Mitchell may be discovering what many on both sides currently feel: That the gap in mutual understanding has never been wider, and both sides are more radicalized than ever before.

“People used to shout ‘Death to the Arabs’ and nobody paid much attention to it,” said Tom Segev, one of Israel’s leading historians, speaking from his home in Jerusalem.

“They used to write anti-Arab graffiti on the walls and the municipalities used to wipe it off — and they don’t anymore. You can walk the streets of Jerusalem and lots of street signs have the Arabic letters wiped out. It has become legitimate even to hate the Israeli Arabs,” said Segev, a controversial historian who has specialized in trying to delve into the collective psyche of Israel.

He noted that an extreme right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, has gained popularity in recent weeks to the point where opinion polls indicate it might win 15 percent of the seats in Parliament in the country’s elections on Feb. 10.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s leaders advocate the exchange of parts of Israel where Arab citizens live for large settlement blocs in the West Bank. “They have no place here” in Israel, party leader Avigdor Lieberman said in May 2004 of most of the country’s more than 1 million Arab citizens.

“This is a really racist, xenophobic party of the kind we never had,”  Segev said, of Yisrael Beiteinu. “This is a new experience.”

The shift to the right in Israel is not, however, limited to the fringe.

Most Israelis firmly supported the offensive in Gaza. Several different polls put the number as high as 90 percent.

The novelist Amos Oz, often critical of Israel’s military offensives in the past, supported the attack.

During nearly every conflict since Iraq’s Scud missile attacks on Israel in 1991, the Israeli peace movement has usually managed to fill Rabin Square in Tel Aviv with a crowd of about 100,000 peace demonstrators. That didn’t happen this time.

During the middle of the conflict, the offices of Peace Now in the basement of a building in Jerusalem seemed becalmed. There were no plans for any mass rallies, workers there said. There was simply no taste for it even on the left in Israel.

Throughout the conflict there was little dissent from the left about the central narrative of the conflict: Hamas was firing rockets from Gaza deeper and deeper into Israel, killing civilians at random, even after Israel had evacuated its settlements there in 2005. And so, the narrative goes, now the Israeli army was trying to stop those rocket attacks on civilian areas with its offensive on Hamas.

The opposing narrative goes something like this: The settlements in Gaza and the West Bank are illegal under international law. And although Israel did abandon its Gaza settlements in 2005, it has continued to blockade the prison-like territory. That blockade constitutes a de facto continuation of the occupation that has taken place since 1967. That fact, this counter-narrative holds, has provoked Hamas into firing rockets at Israel. And further, according to this narrative, Israel’s military response to the rockets coming from Gaza is wildly disproportionate.

The facts of the death toll during the offensive are this: 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Both sides claimed victory.

And both sides have, at a lower level, continued fighting. Palestinian militants have fired a few rockets and mortars into Israel and the Israeli military has conducted air strikes on what it said were rocket launch squads and smuggling tunnels from Gaza to Egypt.

Ruchie Avital, who is spokeswoman for Ofra, a major Jewish settlement in the West Bank, said, “There’s this clarity of vision that is taking shape among many people in Israel that it doesn’t matter what we do — they’re never going to accept us here and so we just have to consolidate ourselves here and try to accept that.”

There is a sense among many in Israel, on the right and even the left, that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — and indeed, the Muslim world — simply has no solution.

Informing this Israeli conviction are some key historical and contemporary events.

Eight years ago, during the height of the Second Intifada, an Israeli army officer summed it up: “It happened to us once and we’ll never let it happen to us again even if some civilians get hurt,” he told me in an off-the-record conversation at a time when Israel was being criticized for killing Palestinian civilians. He was referring to both the Holocaust and any possible future threat to Israel or the Jews.

Since that conversation there have been three military developments that have increased the sense of vulnerability for many Israelis.

First, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah showed in 2006 that it has enough rockets to force 1 million Israelis from their homes in the north of the country. Second, Hamas in Gaza proved in January that their rockets can reach further into the south of the country than ever before. And third, far to the east lies what many Israelis see as the greatest threat to their existence since the war of 1973: Iran and its nuclear program.

In his recent interview on Arab television, Obama said that he believed “that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to make peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.”

Obama may be expressing the optimism of a new president, rather than the pragmatism and perhaps understandable cynicism of an old Middle East watcher like Segev.

One of Obama’s key premises may be false. Most Israelis, Segev said, “are united in a feeling that it makes no point to discuss peace because they don’t believe peace is possible any more.”


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