Israel-Palestine Conflict and IR Theories
Is peace between Israelis and Palestinians possible?
Peace is sought out and desired by leaders of nations as an alternative to war and conflict. However, defining what peace entails is often challenging. It is easier to recognize what peace is not rather than what it ought to be. For the purposes of this article, this author defines “peace” as, “The successful implementation of agreeable conditions for preventing conflict between nations.” These conditions are often approved upon in advance and implemented by the nations in question and may at certain times be brought on or negotiated with the assistance of a third party. Such an example may be seen with the Camp David Accords, which were signed in 1978 between Israel and Egypt with a framework implemented with the assistance of the United States. Peace evidently means different things to different people, particularly within a heated conflict such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Traditional IR literature does lead us to believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a viable prospect although, as previously mentioned, the current material is not sufficient to assess the application of concepts of peace to conflict. Regardless of the lens utilized by IR scholars, almost every theory within the discipline deals with the topic of peace in one form or another. For example, realists are pessimistic in regards to the potential for peace and view peace as the period between two wars. In other words, they believe in the inevitability of the return to a state of war given the anarchical international arena and seek to prolong this period between wars. Thus, realists essentially argue that peace is possible in some instances although it is likely not permanent. Liberals, on the other hand, have traditionally been criticized for adopting a utopian point of view, with many of them believing that permanent peace is both viable and realistic.
Any theoretical perspective, both within and outside of the field of IR, possesses its own strengths as well as weaknesses, and liberalism and realism are no different. Merely adopting one approach over the other is unnecessary and impractical. On the one hand, although individuals and states can compromise and conflict can be avoided in many situations, depending on the circumstances or context, it cannot completely disappear. On the other hand, human beings have wants, needs and desires, which are often at odds with one another and often lead to disputes and even violence. Liberals are more likely to perceive mankind positively, whereas realists view individuals as selfish beings who will always act in their own self-interest.
Any student or scholar of IR will at some point come across the works of Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant. In the mid-1600s, Hobbes’s Leviathan advanced the need for a social contract in order to develop rules within a society between government and those who are subsequently governed. Without such a contract, Hobbes argued, humans would be caught up in a state of nature in which the life of man remained “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (1651). One can only imagine the state of the world today if it were not for these social contracts, which bind individuals together under a common rule – the nation-state. Essentially, a social contract includes a provision of norms that have resulted in rules and regulations for what is morally acceptable and unacceptable within a society. All citizens are expected to follow these laws or else be subject to punishment. Nevertheless, assuming that human beings will always resort to violence in one form of another is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is a criticism that has been levied on realists many times.
Approximately a hundred years later, the world was introduced to Kant, one of the founders of idealism, and his theory of “perpetual peace” in 1795. This theory largely introduced the liberal approach in IR that many scholars have come to adopt and defend. His writings paved the way for thinking how peace could be realistically implemented, even in a time of incessant conflict. Although he argued, similar to Hobbes, that the natural state of man was one of war, he believed that the cessation of violence between states was possible. More specifically, Kant argued:
A state of peace among men who live side by side is not the natural state, which is rather to be described as a state of war: that is to say, although there is not perhaps always actual open hostility, yet there is a constant threatening that an outbreak may occur. Thus the state of peace must be established (Kant 9).
Therefore, Kant argued that conditions for peace did not naturally occur and had to instead be created by individuals. Kant’s ideas lay in contrast to Hobbes, the latter of whom was more pessimistic about man and believed that the social contract would not result in permanent peace, but instead would assist in preventing further conflict and protect man from his own state of nature.
Kant’s ideas heavily influenced the subsequent notion of the “democratic peace theory”, which argues that democracies are less likely to go to war together (Kauppi and Viotti 154). The central premise behind this theory is that because democracies possess similar values and beliefs about governance, rights and liberties, they are less likely to engage in violence with like-minded states. In considering whether democratic peace theory is still applicable today, one can look to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as two nations with opposing styles of government and rule, where religions, cultures, ideologies, values, and beliefs constantly clash. Israel is largely considered a democratic state since it fulfills many of the criteria of what a democracy should entail, although it has been harshly and routinely criticized for its treatment of Palestinians. On the other hand, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the West Bank is seemingly undemocratic and Hamas in Gaza is categorically authoritarian. According to the central premise of the democratic peace theory, both nations would need to be liberal democracies in order for future conflict to be avoided.
Although IR theory does lead us to believe that some form of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a viable prospect, the steps or methods necessary to implement peace are generally not offered. Since each theory of IR offers its own perspective on peace, therefore, there is no proper way to approach the literature of peace, which is subjective in many ways. Subjectiveness arises out of various perspectives describing what peace entails and how it is best understood by various individuals whether they lie within or outside of academia. Although realists tend to believe in a temporary peace and liberals imagine one that is longer term, some form of peace beyond a ceasefire may be possible to envision depending on one’s theoretical inclinations. This article does not aim to offer solutions to the conflict, but instead to open a wider discussion as to how peace may be possible between Israelis and Palestinians. Such a discussion can illustrate that peace might arise in different ways and through different means, even though the current literature on peace in IR remains unsatisfactory for the reasons stated earlier in this article.
Taking these issues into consideration, scholars, however, should not be penalized for a lack of solutions in achieving peace since they are not expected to solve global crises. Instead, as producers of academic knowledge, scholars can offer significant contributions to their respective fields through a process of questioning current theories all the while incorporating their own ideas based upon individual beliefs as well as intellectual backgrounds. Further, those involved in influencing decisions at a state level may be skeptical of academics and may not welcome their analysis and explanations, by naively implying that they may not know enough about the issues at hand. In this sense, there is a level of distrust between policy makers and academics, consequently influencing how academic knowledge is used in the broader political arena. Several authors argue, “While policymakers do use theory (what they refer to as background and frameworks), they are skeptical of much of academic social science which they see as jargon-ridden and overly focused on technique, at the expense of substantive findings” (Avey and Desch 228). Skepticism towards scholars does not indicate that they cannot, and should not, write about important issues and offer recommendations as intellectuals. In fact, greater awareness and enhanced discussion between academics and policy makers can lead to a more positive outcome for all involved and greater enhancement of knowledge.