The Israeli prime ministers narrative is raising a generation for whom peace would mean betrayal, says author and psychologist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Israel is a land of storytellers. Authors such as Amos Oz and David Grossman are acclaimed worldwide, and the political thriller Fauda has the nation well and truly addicted. But the best storyteller in our country is Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime ministers talent allows him to construct a narrative so realistic, one could actually believe in it. Above all, it is his great skill in manipulating characters that makes him transcend mere politics. In fact, I would hazard a guess that Netanyahu is the best storyteller in the world.
The word storyteller might sound disrespectful. In the streets where I grew up, in the heart of Tel Aviv, it was usually used as an insult. Jewish mamas want their sons to be doctors, not storytellers. But storytelling is a very serious business. In the case of Netanyahu, you could say its deadly serious.
To understand how serious, look at historian Yuval Noah Hararis theory of the cognitive revolution. According to Harari, Homo sapiens came to dominate the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate in large numbers. Thanks to our ability to imagine things collectively, we can subscribe to a common story about a state, or a god and lead others to pursue a holy grail that might exist only in the mind. All large-scale human cooperation systems derive from human beings unique capacity for fiction. We are governed by concepts that exist only in the shared imagination nation, money. If we stop validating them for instance, should enough people stop believing in the common story entitled the EU they will cease to exist.
You need a story in order to glue millions of people together. The case of Israels foundation provides a good example. Jews travelled the world to return to the promised land. They came from Ethiopia, Morocco, Siberia, China and Europe, risking their lives to get to this small piece of territory in the Middle East, because they all believed in a common story the Zionist story.
On Tuesday, I will walk with my little boy and girl to the polling station, to vote in the Israeli elections. This vote is my opportunity to influence or at least to believe that I can influence the plot of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy.
This years elections will be held 10 days before Passover, the Jewish celebration of the exodus of Jews from Egypt. Im reminded of that thanks to my taxi driver that old seismograph of public opinion. As we drive the streets of Tel Aviv he says: How can you tell me youre going to vote for the left? Dont you realise that the Arabs are like Pharaoh? Pharaoh, of course, issued a royal decree to kill all Jewish male babies. By the time we reach the next traffic light, I get to hear that the Palestinians are not only a manifestation of Pharaoh, but also the successors of Hitler.
The taxi driver like a well-prepared pupil in a literature class presents the plot summary of Netanyahus bestselling story. Heres a brief outline (warning, spoilers ahead): the people of Israel are the ultimate good. After being victims for 2,000 years, we finally managed to overcome evil. The evil is the Palestinians, a reincarnation of former evils that continue to haunt the Hebrew people. And theres no point negotiating with evil entities. In Netanyahus own words: We want a genuine peace and because of this, we will not conduct negotiations with a terrorist organisation in diplomatic disguise. And the end of the plot? There is no end. The clash goes on for ever.
We constantly hear Netanyahu declaring that one cannot negotiate with Hamas. But while maintaining this narrative, Netanyahus government actually does negotiate with Hamas, through secret channels, short-term ceasefires, or exchanges of fallen IDF soldiers in return for Palestinian prisoners. If we can negotiate short-term solutions, why cant we at least try to negotiate long-term agreements? I have no sympathy for Hamas. I wish I could have a more liberal and humanistic enemy. But we dont get to choose our enemies. We do get to choose our politicians.
In an op-ed published during the Gaza war of 2014, Grossman asked Netanyahus government: How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people? Today, after five more years of mutual losses, Grossmans words echo even more strongly.
The Israeli left tries to present an alternative to Netanyahus story. Its a complicated one that refuses to portray any side as the ultimate good. Whats so tragic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that, as Oz described it, its a clash between right and right. Through acknowledging the suffering of both sides, we might come to an agreement. But this story fails to compete with the compelling narrative constructed by Netanyahu.
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