Middle East 'fear of peace'

March 14, 1997

ACADEMICS from four Middle East countries have turned the peace dialogue on its head by meeting to talk about the "fear of peace".

A two-day workshop organised in Jordan by the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies attracted more than 50 Jordanian, Palestinian, Egyptian and Israeli academics, writers and diplomats. It was the first workshop to be held by the institute's programme to promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews in the context of the Middle East peace process.

Some of that spirit of recognition and respect undoubtedly came from Prince Hassan, the founder of the Royal Institute.

"One of the by-products of the peace treaty is that it has forced us to meet new unavoidable realities head on. These realities may have been there all along, but were obscured by a number of wartime exigencies," he said. "The most important reality of all is that a new regional interdependence is in the offing, made possible by the stark realisation that none of us can go it alone.

"To societies that have indulged in the catharsis of war, peace may appear somewhat of a non-starter. Within the ranks of such societies, there is always a certain reluctance to actually bury the hatchet or beat swords into the proverbial ploughshares. In certain situations, this can amount to an actual fear of peace.

"A centrist and moderate Islam can bridge our fears and provide a clear programme of action, but how can many of us, who have lost relatives in wars all over our region, come easily to dialogue with the other?" However, Sari Nasser, a professor of sociology at the University of Jordan, was not so optimistic. He said that "the present negotiations are once again a dialogue between deaf people; an exercise in futility".

He thought that the stumbling blocks were Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and what he called "lingering Zionist ideology".

"Real peace will come to the area when Israel learns to live within the 1967 borders and when Palestinians accept it (Israel) in the area," Professor Nasser suggested.

Khalil Shikaki, associate professor of political science at al-Najah University in Nablus in the West Bank and director of projects at the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies, spoke of the fears caused by the "transitional nature of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

"It did not end occupation. There is a high level of fear among young Palestinians: in the recent past, students have become more hardline: the level of support for attacks against Israel has now reached 80 per cent. Many think that the Palestinians have a military option and that the peace process is a failure. Of those polled, 80 per cent support a multi-party western type of democracy."

According to the centre's surveys, most Palestinians were pessimistic about peace, did not trust the Israelis and thought that the process was bad for the economy.

In contrast, Israeli writer Shulamit Hareven told the audience not to expect a "wave of love" to come with the peace process, but said "we need healing". She said that "95 per cent of Israeli writers support the Palestinian cause. I wonder how many Palestinian writers are as supportive of the Israeli cause?" Marwan Darwish, an Israeli-Arab and director of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information's "peace education project", described a programme to introduce a curriculum of peace education into Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian high schools.

"We take existing subjects and enrich them with the idea of democracy . . . We want to move from dehumanisation to seeing the humanity of the other.

"Instead of teaching high schools things from the perspective of war, we will teach it through the peace agreement, its implications, gains and price."

Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Shimon Shamir also spoke of a fear of change.

"Peace is open-ended by definition. (It) has no tangible content - a fear of change may bring about a feeling of a loss of control. A sense of control is a deeply ingrained human need. Peace threatens the self-image of Israelis, Israelis who used to have a self-image of the frontier; Israelis who used to be the victim, who now have the power to fight back. They become less powerful in an era of peace."

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