Speaking … Truce to Power Reflections of a “guilty” bystander to the Israel-Palestine conflict (Part Two)

by Dr Lambros Fatsis

continuing from Part One

Section III: Responses

3.1 Negotiation, not a dialogue of the deaf

Having already attempted to show some neglected or even hidden layers that lurk behind a sensitive and volatile political debate, this section endeavours to introduce the idea, notion and practice of negotiation as a fundamental political act, thereby elevating it as a necessary practice for political change rather than reducing it to a mere linguistic or cultural device. This is an important acknowledgement to make, not just to ward off accusations of committing “policy by Freud”, but to stress and highlight the significance of negotiation in the resolution of political conflict as a crucial rather than a naïve plan of action, that is as difficult to implement as it is vital.

Despite the immense complexities and difficulties of negotiation, described by Henry Kissinger as an ‘ordeal by exegesis’ (Cohen, 1990: 146), it is here contended that treating negotiation as a key process in reaching a consensual agreement as well as helping in winding down the fighting is important on a number of counts.

Firstly, negotiation helps in breaking the mould, if not the patterns and habit of the existing dialogue of mutual exclusion, by turning interminable disputes into potentially sustainable negotiations that stress communication in pursuit of peace, rather than as a proxy for a performance of dramatic confrontation.

Secondly, negotiation recognises the dependence on others to achieve one’s own independence; a process which requires building trust given the ‘intrinsic contradiction between conflict and the need for joint action’ (Casmir, 1990: 43). Besides, as Casmir (1990: 43) notes, ‘[i]t is the resolution of that conflict which is the primary purpose’ of the negotiation process, and given that what we ‘need to remember’ is that when two parties are in dispute ‘they want different things and they want them from each other’, it is apprehension and mistrust, not co-operation and negotiation that act at the expense of each side’s own interests.

Thirdly, negotiation offers a much more well-rounded approach to conflict-resolution, than continued violence or indifference does because, as Casmir (1990: 40) states:

‘Negotiations, especially on the international level, are a complex process that requires consideration not only of the factors contributing to them at the moment, but also cultural and other interrelationships that precede and follow the readily apparent procedures. All negotiations are concerned with power; that is they are the result of power relationships between negotiation partners. Furthermore, they must take into account factors that have caused trust or mistrust to develop in the past because of perceptions related to the use of power by one or more of the negotiation partners’.

3.1 Reconciliation, not alienation: A sustainable alternative?

Having so far discussed the historical, linguistic and cultural dimensions of the Israel-Palestine conflict, without in any way wishing to reduce it to those factors alone, this section of the article hopes to reveal its author’s orientation to the issue by sharing a few reflections as notes towards re-thinking the whole debate as well as offering some alternative responses to it, with the intention of proposing reconciliation via peaceful negotiation as a viable linguistic, cultural and political mode for speaking truce to power.

Reconciliation is therefore seen here as a serious and important process of political deliberation seeking to ‘repair damages of the past through a new mode of justice, often called ‘restorative’ justice, which can be understood as an attempt to establish and legitimate an emotional ‘regime’ that is markedly different from the regime that typically underpins the retributive justice of ordinary democracies’ (Ure, 2008: 284-5). The aim of such a proposition for a shift from “retributive” to “restorative” justice, is to try and imagine a sustainable alternative to violence and enmity which ‘acknowledges the legitimacy’ of ‘past grievances’, but also attempts to ‘find ways to overcome victims’ anger and resentment for the sake of creating a viable social future’ by means of ‘[r]espect[ing] the victims and survivors of atrocity-yet broker their participation’ (Ure, 2008: 285).

Ambitious and ambivalent though such a proposition might be, it will dominate the argument of this article which is organised in four themes; (a) Avenging Revenge, (b) Taking Emotions Seriously, (c) Healing, not Killing, and (d) Arresting Violence

Avenging Revenge
Revisiting an argument that was initially defended at a previous article for the Sociologists of Crisis series, albeit set at a different context altogether, my call to avenge revenge by entirely abandoning the idea and the practice serves as an invitation to fashion a different image, and inspire a different interpretation of justice that moves away from automatically, spontaneously and lazily equating it with retribution and revenge.

Despite literary, legal and cultural evidence that defines revenge as synonymous to justice, from Homer’s (18: 127) depiction of it, via Achilles, as ‘sweeter than dripping streams of honey’, and Hesiod’s scathing description of Thebans’ whose ‘justice is violence’ (Lane, 2014: 29), to Judith Shklar’s (1990: 94) emphatic observation that ‘[f]or most people, retributive justice is justice’, it is here argued that considering the ‘exhilaration of revenge’ (Skhlar, 1990: 97) as justice is immensely problematic, if not erroneous, intellectually, morally, culturally and politically alike.

Re-defining justice instead in a way that opens up a space, a middle ground, a mean between anger (thymos) and compassion (eleos) seems more sensible and durable, bearing in mind Plato’s resounding claim that ‘the just city is based on an education that carefully calibrates its citizens’ anger (thymos) and extinguishes their sense of tragic grief or compassion (eleos)’ (Ure, 2008: 283). Such an alternative definition of justice moves away from revenge as a rightful or even righteous response to harm, and directs our energies instead towards what, South African psychologist and esteemed participant in the third Russell Tribunal on Palestine, Gobodo-Madizikela (2008: 331) calls ‘empathetic repair’. Substituting violence and aggression, with empathetic repair however requires a leap in political consciousness, and the guiding assumption behind such a logic is that ‘building or re-establishing a sense of shared humanity’, as Ure (2008: 285) puts it, needs the emergence, if not creation, of a ‘political community based on equality of respect and civic trust’, with the aim of encouraging ‘victims, perpetrators and beneficiaries to undergo an emotional catharsis’; a consideration that is entirely over-looked by conventional criminal and civil laws and practices. ‘Compared with retributive justice’, Ure (2008: 285) adds, ‘the restorative mode of justice pioneered by traditional societies demands the application of a greater range of emotional responses to injuries and violations and, in some cases, a challenge to the norms of reasonableness in emotions that applies in established democracies’.

Changing the mode of justice as a result of political will however largely depends on making past enemies regard one another as fellow human beings, an imperative identified by Trudy Govier (2002: 144), in Forgiveness and Revenge, as follows:

‘People cannot come together in a lasting way and cooperate as they will need to in a jointly run society if they remain angry, vengeful, suspicious, and insecure. The need for forgiveness lies in its relevance to two very practical aspects of reconciliation: cooperation and sustainability’.
Removing ‘resentment and anger’, Govier (2002: 144) suggests, is important because they undermine the trust that sustains social cooperation, and need to be replaced instead with a different emotional education, or rather, re-education that equips citizens with the confidence of nurturing and defending more lasting political emotions, by taking them as seriously as they would act of retribution and violence.

Taking Emotions Seriously
Avenging revenge with compassion, apart from a magnanimous display of political will, also involves a reconciliation with emotions as a rich lexicon in and of political life, urging us to mine our psyche for solutions beyond anger in order to effect a transition from authoritarianism to democracy by confronting a bully without becoming thugs ourselves. Vague and hopelessly naive though such a suggestion for resolving political issues may sound, it is not without its proponents, and the figures I have in mind as I type do not come from the insular, ivy-clad world of academia, but from the realm of direct, traumatic experience. Nelson Mandela was one such figure and, as Muldoon (2008: 307) observes, he was one to see a ‘strong connection’ between the ‘(external) transition from authoritarianism to democracy and the (internal) transition from anger to forgiveness’. Desmond Tutu, another South African candidate, had a similar philosophy in mind when encouraging the Truth and Reconciliation Committees with the aim of seeing forgiveness as a lasting remedy rather than a quick fix for those choking upon their anger and resentment.

Last but not least, comes Phan Thị Kim Phúc, now a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador campaigning for peace, and a nine-year old child in the Vietnam War when she witnessed and suffered severe injuries and underwent numerous operations as a result of the napalm bomb shower that devastated her village in South Vietnam. The ‘Napalm Girl’, as she came to be known after photographer Nick Ut’s iconic photo ‘The Terror of War’, made the following appeal during a ceremony in Washington, DC:‘If I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him that we cannot change history, but at least we can try to work together in the future to promote peace’.

Upon delivering her speech, Gobodo-Madizikela (2008: 345) recalls, ‘John Plummer, the man responsible for dropping the napalm bomb was present in the audience. He wrote a note with the words: ‘I am that man’. The note was passed on to Kim and at the end of her talk they approached each other’, where Kim Phúc opened her arms to Plummer, and upon accepting his sobbing apology said: ‘It’s alright’, ‘I forgive. I forgive’.

What this incident portrays, is not, as Gobodo-Madizikela (2008: 345) puts it, a ‘misguided sentimentality’ at the expense of “real politics” but an encounter which is ‘illustrative of the development of emphatic identification between a perpetrator of an atrocity and a survivor who bears emotional and physical scars from the atrocity’. In political terms, such examples address the need to introduce forgiveness, empathy and compassion as a trinity of emotions that form and inform a new kind of political ethic, ‘an ethic for enemies’, as Donald Shriver (1995) called it.
For forgiveness to matter however, escaping its stigmatisation as a rose-tinted abstraction with little relevance to pragmatic reality, its ‘proper function’ needs to be understood in terms of its capacity to ‘forgive the inexcusable and incomprehensible’. ‘Without the gravity of an atrocity’, Jankélevich (2005: 106) argues, forgiveness would be ‘superfluous’, a mere formality and an ‘empty protocol’ devoid of meaning or purpose. Elaborating on his argument Jankélevich (2005: 106) adds that:

‘When a crime can neither be justified, not explained, nor even understood, when, with everything that could be explain having been explained, the atrocity of this crime and the overwhelming evidence of this responsibility are obvious before everyone’s eyes, when the atrocity has neither mitigating circumstances, nor excuses of any sort, and when hope of regeneration has to be abandoned, then there is no longer anything else to do but to forgive’.
Such a process of forgiveness however, involves, as Horwitz (2005: 485) notes, ‘significant intrapsychic work, conscious and unconscious working through one’s anger, and putting the offence into the context of an integrated view of the whole person of the offender’, thus neither forgetting one’s trauma, nor denying the humanity of the perpetrator by means of exterminating her, but urging “villains” and victims to start conversing in the common idiom of humanity, rather than the enraged babble of violence.

Healing, Not Killing
Building on the previous argument, before we reach the conclusion to this article in the next and final section, forgiveness is here praised as a psychically and politically transformative process which turns killing into healing or at least aspires to do so. In that context, forgiveness is not equated to forgetfulness, selective memory or total amnesia, but rather to a process of learning to live with a trauma with a wish to heal rather than avenge the violence that has been inflicted. Woundedness is therefore seen as what Gobodo-Madizikela (2008: 344) describes as ‘an ethical responsibility towards the other’, urging us to converse responsibly with the realm of what Arendt (1998) called ‘radical evil’, which is neither punishable or forgivable.

Radical evil, according to Arendt, is “unpunishable” because no amount of punishment can restore a proper sense of justice, and unforgivable because such evil deeds are impossible to forgive. Yet it is in this battle between two impossibilities that Arendt (1998: 237) paradoxically offers forgiveness as a possible solution, arguing that forgiving ‘serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose “sins” hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation’. In doing so, Arendt, who knows a thing or two about violence, totalitarianism and evil, is being neither vague, nor utopian, but bravely pits her argument against the rhetoric of revenge, punishment and persecution, defending instead an ‘enduring vision of democracy and action in political life; bringing victims, perpetrators and beneficiaries of oppressive regimes together for sustained dialogue about the past’, believing that it is ‘the only action that holds promise for the repair of brokenness in post-conflict societies’ (Gobodo-Madizikela, 2008: 335). Thus, replacing vengefulness with forgiveness and killing with healing also means resisting the teleology of violence, urging instead the possibility of peace, which will be neither punitive (towards the perpetrators), nor humiliating (for the victims), but negotiated in pursuit of rationally defined interests, and policies, thereby substituting the degrading effect of violence and aggression with the restorative effect of forgiveness as the basis of and for politics in post-traumatic societies with a view to prompt self-examination and revision of cherished values, ideals and beliefs.

Arresting Violence and Speaking Truce to Power

In concluding this article it seems important to offer a generalised view of the argument here espoused as one that aims to “arrest violence” in favour of “speaking truce to power”, thus arguing for a shift from a rhetoric of conflict towards establishing a culture of healing and reconciliation aimed at peace through negotiation.

Unlike most politicised responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict, what is argued here is a fundamentally political alternative response, which does not treat the resolution of the issue as a state-building exercise alone, but as a task of overcoming betrayal and trauma in an enduring and sustainable manner which takes into account the emotional, cultural and political dimensions of conflict that are often neglected, if not despised, in the fear of de-politicising the issue in favour of psychoanalytic interpretations. In defence of the argument here proposed however, a distinction should be made between the “politicised” and the “political”, given that the former is served by acclamation and assertiveness while the latter is characterised by extermination of hatred and attentiveness. It is therefore argued that any self-respecting “political” response to the Israel-Palestine conflict cannot afford to ignore the complexity, the parallels, the paradoxes and the painful contradictions that the issue engenders in favour of taking just one stance, defending just one position, at the expense of considering what makes it such a complicated and divisive matter in the first place.

The use of scholarly work on cross-cultural conflicts, borrowed from linguistics and on reconciliation and trauma, borrowed from social theory, tries to negotiate that gap by furnishing imaginative solutions to the deadlocking of talks and the continuation of violence, in the hope that they might at least enrich our thinking and our public pronouncements about such deeply divisive political debates; thereby hinting at the possibility of replacing excitable babble with careful, empathetic consideration of the various aspects of a conflict that is so often charged by polarisation, division, and a disturbing amount of fanaticism that culminates into hatred, as witnessed in a worrying re-surfacing of anti-Semitic rhetoric during the recent events in Gaza.

To be pro-Palestinian does not mean being anti-Semitic, as the slogan goes, yet adopting a one-sided stance to a multi-layered problem only makes sense in cloistered ideological terms, not in the open court of politics. The subtle, yet hopefully powerful, alternative here proposed then has a twofold aim; to invite us to think of the Israel-Palestine conflict differently, as well as to infuse hard-line realpolitik with a sense of soft power, by considering, as the UN-sponsored Durban Declaration of 2001 did, truth commissions, special legislation mandating reparations, formal acts of apology, judicial tribunals, state trials, and other international action on behalf of political reconciliation as important initiatives in a politics of social repair to replace peddling simplistic and divisive one-state, or two-state solutions to a problem that is bigger than a mere territorial dispute, and requires more than an exchange of land for its resolution in any sustainable way. To undo the harm of long-standing traumas one cannot simply issue calls to arms, propose divisive policies, or erect walls and borders that separate, but rather offer the space, the time, the security, the guarantees and the chance for rival sides to non-defensively engage the world by negotiating a desirable outcome together, leaving the politics of reversion behind.

Paraphrasing Édouard Glissant (1989: 16) who, as a Martinican, knew only too well what colonialism and oppression meant, ‘to revert is to consecrate permanence and negate cont(r)act’, and in the Israel-Palestine conflict choosing to revert would simply re-stir past and existing animosities rather than alter the current state of affairs by giving political love, not enmity a try.


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Dr. Lambros Fatsis teaches Sociology at the University of Sussex. He also performs as a reggae selector under the alias Boulevard Soundsystem.

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