Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East


Comments by Prof. Derek Penslar

Delivered at the Royal United Services Institute in London

Prof. Penslar is the Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford

Congratulations to Abdel Monem Said Aly, Khalil Shikaki and Shai Feldman for an outstanding achievement. There are many extant texts on the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this is the most sophisticated, informative and up-to-date. It combines the best aspects of the straightforward narrative approach of a typical textbook

(e.g., those of Charles Smith and Mark Tessler) with the “multiple narrative” approach of Sami Adwan, the late Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh in their secondary-school text that featured Palestinian and Zionist/Israeli narratives on facing pages. (A more concentrated dual narrative effort, focusing on 1948, resulted in a book published last year by Motti Golani and Adel Manna.)


"The constructive power of rigorous, open-minded scholarship on the Arab-Israeli conflict may be illustrated via reference to the mathematical equation f(x) = 1/|x|, which produces mirror-image asymptotes..."


Most discourse on the conflict falls into an epistemological dichotomy between vulgar positivism and relativism – the former insisting that a knowledge of “the facts” will inexorably lead one to support one side or the other, the other helplessly granting each side its own narrative and claiming that the search for truth is futile. Arabs and Israelis demonstrates the difference between three distinct yet related ways by which we understand the world around us: First, there are universally agreed upon events, which make up the first part of each chapter. Second, there are underlying affective states that influence perceptions and representations of those events, which are discussed in the second part of each chapter. Third, there is a higher-order analysis that transcends subject-position by bringing together the three authors - Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian – into conversation and agreement upon a common discourse.

Arabs and Israelis offers micro, meso and macro level perspectives in each chapter – that is, individual personalities and relations, regional and international systemic influences. Similarly, I would infer that the three authors’ relationship,

and the circumstances that made it possible for them to produce this book, can be studied in a micro, meso and macro context.

The third and most challenging component of each chapter – analysis of causes and consequences of the materials under review, analysis that transcends affective bias and goes far beyond mere exposition of fact – could only occur if there were a deep trust and respect between the authors. The authors cannot overcome their subject positions, but their commitment to scholarly rigour allows for meaningful, constructive conversation across what become ever smaller gaps between interlocutors.


"The blending of subjective narrative and consensus-driven analysis produces not merely a compound, but rather a new element – a truly original and constructive understanding of the world’s most intractable conflict."


The constructive power of rigorous, open-minded scholarship on the Arab-Israeli conflict may be illustrated via reference to the mathematical equation f(x) = 1/|x|, which produces mirror-image asymptotes that, as x approaches 0, run ever closer to the y axis, almost touching, separated by an infinitesimally fine line. If in this circumstance “x” refers to the political or emotional bias of an author, whether her subject position be found in the positive or negative quadrant (the terms “positive” and “negative” are mathematical, not normative) the scholarship she produces, the f(x), will be close to, almost intimate with, what is produced by her interlocutor who dwells in the facing quadrant.

In Arabs and Israelis, something even more remarkable has been accomplished – the curves intersect; the border between quadrants is obliterated. Arabs and Israelis illustrates an observation by the philosopher Leo Strauss 

based upon Al-Arabi’s commentaries on Plato. Strauss observed that taking an intermediate position between two philosophical extremes is not an act of compromise, but rather “suppresses them both, uproots them by a prior, more profound question,” whose result is a “truly critical philosophy.” Similarly, the blending of subjective narrative and consensus-driven analysis produces not merely a compound, but rather a new element – a truly original and constructive understanding of the world’s most intractable conflict. And with that new understanding, and the methods by which it was achieved, come the possibility of that conflict’s resolution.