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Is Israel's Aggression a Question of Pride?

Israel would rather go down fighting than survive with a damaged sense of national pride. What would happen if concessions weren't so symbolic?

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Are Palestinians caught in the same trap? The researchers who studied both sides found them equally focused on inflicting symbolic defeats on the other side. Perhaps Palestinians are as afraid, as are Israelis, of losing their pride. Perhaps that's why Hamas leaders resist formal recognition of Israel, even though they have clearly signaled their de facto acceptance of the Jewish state for several years and affirm the same view now. But that is for Palestinians and those who know them well to say. If it does turn out that the two sides are mirror images of each other, the conflict might seem even more insoluble.

Yet, the researchers who collected all this data suggest a more hopeful view. Once mediators from outside, like George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, understand that all the tangible issues in dispute are basically counters in a symbolic contest, they can begin to work with both sides more constructively.

In principle, anything can serve equally well as a symbolic counter. So no specific issue need be a sticking point. A truly skilled mediator could identify assets that each side could afford to lose, from a practical point of view, and suggest that they be sacrificed in a show of graceful concession.

Then each side could do what I wish the Israelis had done way back in 1973: throw up its hands, cry "We lost!" this or that or some other thing, and give the other side a reason to feel proud of its victory. As implausible as it sounds, that may be the only way to Middle East peace.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin .