The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been challenging to researchers. The nature of the conflict appears, at times, to defy both the material interests and strategic rationality of the warring parties. The struggle has been described as possessing a primordial intensity, unpredictability and elusiveness that weighs heavily on academic research. Middle East experts have long understood the fundamental role of identity and symbolic rationality stating that “no student of Middle East politics can begin to understand the region without taking into account the ebb and flow of identity politics” (Telhani 2002: 2).
While the powerful influence of identity on the region has long been accepted, it was the perceived stability of these identities that proved to be the greatest hindrance to analysis. It was not until the failure of traditional International Relations theory to satisfactorily explain the end of the cold war or the resulting surge of ethnic violence that occurred in its wake, that traditional approaches were reconsidered (McSweeny 1999: 1). A cornerstone of this new research examines the relationship between malleable national identity and strategic behaviour (Barnett 1996: 401). If different national identities prioritize different material, ideational and moral aspirations, the security threats they define will differ accordingly (Mitzen 2003:8). Thus, variations in national identity directly impact both security concerns and policy (Jepperson 1996: 60). The susceptibility to change can result, at times, in dramatic shifts in policy comprehensible only when the undercurrents of identity are considered.
Identity associated interests are implicitly exclusionary, as they identify threats as external in origin, whether abstractions such as anarchy or terrorism,or associated with particular organizations, states or people. Relationships with outsiders, obviously, are not inherently antagonistic. The perception of outsiders determines who constitutes an ally, an adversary or an enemy. Where outsiders are deemed to share common interests, they are perceived as equally shared threats; and make potential allies. External parties with competing interests make for adversaries. An enemy emerges when an outsider appears to possess mutually exclusive interests to our own, reducing any meaningful interaction into a zero-sum game. Thus, an ‘enemy’ image is more than antipathy or dislike, but is based on a belief that one’s values, interests or survival are directly threatened by the actions or even existence of the other group (Luostarinen 1989:125). The corresponding security policy is equally impacted by the perception one has of the outsider.
Rational outsiders are deemed responsive to diplomacy or negotiation. Irrational, immoral or deceptive characteristics, alternatively, significantly reduce the available range of action. ‘Enemy’ images anticipate hostility, exaggerate threat, and sanction violence; dismissing any action to the contrary as uncharacteristic, unintended, or strategically disarming (Steele 2005: 528). The more capable an enemy appears to be, the more immediate the need for response. While the more irrational the enemy is perceived to be, the narrower the available range of diplomatic action becomes (Stein 1996: 190; Conner 1998: 97). The depiction of an enemy as vermin spreading across the region implies extermination, not negotiation.
Likewise, casting the opponents as an enemy of God demands crusades and jihads launched in God’s name. Force against barbarians acts in the only language they understand. The associated characteristics of the enemy are preclusion to cooperation. The enemy is deemed too irrational, immoral or evil to negotiate with. The traditional preclusion to extreme political force is lifted. The greater the menace, the more permissible the aggressiveness is to protect our nation, our children and our civilization (Ramsbotham 2005: 117). To not engage such an enemy implies moral weakness.