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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?

Suppose Barack Obama really does want to herd the Israelis and Palestinians into serious, fruitful peace negotiations. How could he, or anyone, hope to get an agreement from these seemingly intractable enemies? Two researchers think they've found at least the beginning of an answer.

They asked nearly 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians what kind of peace deal they would accept. When they proposed "rational" bargains, like land for peace or sharing control of Jerusalem, the answers were generally negative. For both sides, the researchers found, the real sticking points are about values that people hold sacred. The tangible issues -- land, resources, political control, and the like -- are only symbols of these sacred values.

That's the best way for the U.S. to understand -- Israeli relations emerging over "natural growth" in the West Bank settlements. In itself it's a relatively small matter. "Natural growth" boosted the settler population by only 3 percent in 2007. Settler families that expand could easily move and find housing elsewhere, as all other expanding Israeli families do.

But the Obama administration has chosen this particular issue as the symbolic gesture Israel must make. And the Israeli government has responded by making "natural growth" the new symbol of all Israel's sacred values.

If they have to give up settlement expansion, what will they have to give up next, they ask. Jerusalem? The Jews' right to have their own state? Perhaps even the state of Israel itself? A people with such a long history of persecution might very well be afraid of losing everything the Jews hold dear. That fear could well explain their intransigence.

Except that's not quite what the research shows. For Israelis -- and for Palestinians -- the crux of the conflict is not about what values each side is afraid of losing and wants to protect. It's about how much they can force the other side to give up.

Most of the respondents on each side demanded a settlement "that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures." The respondents said they would make concessions as long as "the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values."

What sacred values? The researchers offered only examples of actions: Palestinians want an apology from the Jews, while Jews want recognition of Israel's right to exist. But what are the deeper values symbolized by these actions? And why is forcing sacrifice from the other side the crucial goal?

I don't know much about the Palestinians. But having grown up in an observant Jewish home, been active in Jewish community life, studied and taught the history of Judaism for decades, and had close relatives living in Israel for decades, I have a pretty good idea of the values driving the Jewish side of the conflict.

One of the key values, perhaps the most important of all, is national pride. And the most cherished symbol of pride is a victory over an enemy -- forcing it to give up something, anything, that symbolizes a loss of its pride.

I first saw this clearly on Yom Kippur 1973. I was in synagogue, observing the holiest day of the Jewish year, when I heard that the Egyptians had crossed the Suez Canal and attacked the Israeli troops stationed on the other side. My immediate response was something like this:

The Israelis are at the Suez Canal because they captured the Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War in 1967. Why do the Egyptians want the Sinai back? It's a barren desert with no resources of any value. So I jumped to the conclusion (as a young man I was quicker to make assumptions about people I didn't know or understand) that the Egyptians did not want the land back. They wanted their national pride back. They had been humiliated in '67, and now they were going to recoup their self-esteem.