Commentary | The counterfactual approach to peace

I’m no expert on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but one thing I do notice about the discussion between the two often unnecessarily diametrically opposed camps is that it ignores one essential question: what would you do if you were in the other side’s shoes? Counterfactuals can make people’s eyes roll, but it’s a useful exercise because every single actor in the Middle East operates within a narrative and framework that justifies their actions. Trying to understand the grievances and mentality of the other side is a jarring experience because it pushes us outside of our own narrative that helps make our opinions so resolute.

What would you do if you were a Palestinian? If you saw your people’s history as the story of being squeezed off your ancestral homeland? Of facing a powerful, industrialized country with one of the world’s most advanced militaries and backed almost unconditionally by the world’s superpower? A country that maintains a policy of expanding into your territory, land that the international community long ago assured you was yours?
What would you do if you were an Israeli Jew, surrounded by a set of hostile countries? If you saw your people’s history as the story of centuries of persecution, including the world’s failure to come to your defence in your most dire hour of need in the ’40s?
Even beyond that, for both sides, absent of the historical injuries, what would you do if you feared for your children’s safety or their ability to grow up and be what they wanted in their homeland?
Israelis and Palestinians have a myriad of answers for these questions, even within their own communities. But I think the exercise helps place the difficult decisions that both sides make in a useful context; Israelis and Palestinians are simply doing what they think is best in a given situation. I think it’s a bit presumptuous for anyone without a direct connection to the conflict – I certainly don’t have one – to say that they would act any differently than Israelis or Palestinians have, were they in their situation.

Further, this approach makes it self-evident that demonizing rhetoric on both sides doesn’t do a damn bit of good. If each side thinks it has legitimate grievances, there isn’t a chance in hell they’re going to be swayed by anyone else, particularly if they feel that the discourse is alienated from their fundamental, day-to-day concerns. And if everyone else doesn’t seem to be sympathetic to what concerns them, then they are more likely to rally around each other and look out for number one at all costs. Once everyone has dug in, the inequalities of the current situation are perpetuated, and that’s not good for anyone.

It’s certainly tricky because criticisms of the actions of each side are an essential part of any debate. But we have to be honest with ourselves: Israelis and Palestinians will be the ones who eventually sort this mess out for themselves. The discourse in North America, already abstracted from the on-the-ground realities in terms of geography, risks becoming irrelevant if it isn’t acutely sensitive to the collective psyches of each nation in the conflict. There are reasons why many Israelis felt it necessary to support the invasion of Gaza, and many Palestinians feel it necessary to support groups like Hamas. To be ignorant of these realities and vilify groups of people is not constructive.

Maybe it’s an insignificantly small step, but I think that debate that recognizes the understandable anxieties on both sides can help build the mutual trust that is absolutely necessary for reconciliation, but almost entirely absent in a world of Qassam rockets and settlement expansion.

Curtis Smith is a U2 Political Science student. Write him: curtis.smith@mail.mcgill.ca.


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