The Reconciliation Pyramid—A Narrative-Based Framework for Analyzing Identity Conflicts



The Reconciliation Pyramid is suggested in this article as a heuristic tool for exploring accomplished or burgeoning reconciliation processes, as well as cases such as the Middle East, where only tentative and mostly failed steps have been taken towards reconciliation. The first part proposes a terminological framework indicating the relationship between metanarratives, national metanarratives, and national narratives. This terminology is used to analyze national narratives and their role in conflict evolvement and termination. The second part elaborates the seven stages of the Reconciliation Pyramid: Narrative acquaintance; narrative acknowledgement; expressing empathy; assumption of responsibility; readiness for restitution; asking and granting forgiveness and narrative integration. The article concludes with a short case study of the Camp David negotiations and reflects upon the suitability and contribution of the Reconciliation Pyramid to theoretical and empirical reconciliation research.

Reconciliation has been described as the apex of a long process of conflict termination and being tantamount to a stable, warm peace (Rothstein, 1999). Kriesberg (1998a) views reconciliation as a “relatively amicable relationship typically established after a rupture in relations involving one-sided or mutual infliction of extreme injury” and outlines the steps taken by former rivals on their way to reconciliation: “They acknowledge the reality of the terrible acts that were perpetrated; accept with compassion those who committed injurious conduct, as well as acknowledging each other's sufferings; believe that their injustices are being redressed and anticipate mutual security and well-being” (pp. 351–352).

Recently there has been a decline in reconciliation studies and a reversion to more modest concepts like “conflict resolution” and “conflict management,” which better reflect the realities of ongoing conflicts like that in the Middle East. (For systematic comparisons between related modes of conflict termination, see Auerbach, 2005a; Barak, 2005.)

This article will argue that it is too early to abandon the reconciliation concept altogether. It follows Kriesberg's and Rothstein's conceptualization of reconciliation as a long and deep process which aims at radical changes in the hearts and minds of the communities involved in an identity conflict (to be discussed below). Reconciliation, according to this approach, goes beyond the formal, intergovernmental agreements, focused on the material aspects of a conflict and arrived at through “conflict resolution” or “conflict management.” In view of the importance as well as the difficulties in reaching reconciliation, we advise formulating terminological and theoretical frameworks to address the problems of the reconciliation process as well as to assess the potential for overcoming obstacles and thus achieving reconciliation.

One problem in earlier reconciliation studies (among many others, extensively discussed in Bar-Siman-Tov, 2004) was that scholars seemed to be torn between two schools of thought. One claimed reconciliation to be “a difficult and delicate process that is not simply a matter of the head, but more so of the heart” (Fisher, 2001a, p. 34) and highlighted its emotional, warm, healing aspects (e.g., Montville, 1993; Staub, 1998, 2000, 2006). The other argued that the lofty goal of reconciliation would be better served if stripped from its warm, sentimental wrapping and presented in a more political, realistic context (e.g., Arendt, 1958; Dwyer, 1999; Eisikovits, 2004; Long & Brecke, 2003).

Interestingly, these two schools of thought sometimes manifest themselves within the same person. Michael Ignatieff is a case in point. An astute observer of the international scene—particularly of interethnic conflicts—Ignatieff is by no means a naïve idealist. In The Warrior's Honor (1999) he expresses a deep conviction that ethnic groups torn apart by hatred and violence have to undergo mutual mourning and consolation processes: “Without an apology, without recognition of what happened, the past cannot return to its place as the past. . . . Reconciliation built on mutual apology . . . has no chance against vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once in war learn to mourn their dead together” (p. 190).

Several years later, and maybe as a result of his work in preparing the report on the Balkan War with the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Ignatieff is a much more sober realist. He lists all the obstacles encountered on the way toward forgiveness and reconciliation and proposes a sharp distinction between on the one hand, warm, sentimental processes such as reconciliation, shared historical truth, and forgiveness and on the other, cold, realistic, and rational routes such as coexistence based on accepting the world “as it actually is.” He strictly recommends avoiding the former and adhering to the latter (2003, pp. 325–333).

Other scholars argue that apology and forgiveness, as well as remorse and empathy, should be seen as part of the political process that leads to reconciliation (Amstutz, 2005; Biggar, 2001; Digeser, 2001; Tavuchis, 1991). The present article echoes this argument but also emphasizes that reconciliation will not be achieved without addressing the cognitive (i.e., relatively “cold”) components of intractable conflicts, such as “societal beliefs” (Bar-Tal, 1998, 2000a, 2000b; Bar-Tal & Bennink, 2004; Bar-Tal & Teichman, 2005), and especially national narratives (Kelman, 1987, 2001).

The “cold” narrative concept and “warm” moves such as empathy, remorse, and forgiveness are integrated into a proposed “Reconciliation Pyramid” framework for analyzing the reconciliation process. This framework is suggested as a heuristic tool for exploring burgeoning reconciliation processes (e.g., Northern Ireland, South Africa), as well as cases such as the Middle East, where only tentative and mostly failed steps have been taken towards reconciliation.

The analytical framework presented in this article is exploratory and is aimed at generating further—theoretical as well as empirical—research on questions such as: Is reconciliation between two parties embroiled in an identity conflict an achievable goal? Is each phase of the suggested pyramid necessary for achieving genuine reconciliation? Do all reconciliation processes follow the same pattern?

The first part of this article will propose a terminological framework indicating the relationship between national metanarratives and national narratives. This terminology will then be used to analyze national narratives and their role in the evolvement and termination of identity conflicts. The third part will elaborate upon the seven stages of the Reconciliation Pyramid. The theoretical discussion will be illustrated with examples drawn from different identity conflicts, with special focus on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The article concludes with a short example from the 2000 Camp David negotiations and reflects upon the suitability and contribution of the Reconciliation Pyramid to theoretical and empirical reconciliation research.

National Narratives and Metanarratives

Conflicts, whether between individuals or collectives, erupt when basic needs are unmet and when the two sides to the conflict have good reasons (at least in their own eyes) to believe that the other is responsible for this deprivation. Human needs include both basic needs (food, security, etc.) and more elevated needs such as belonging, recognition, and individual as well as collective identity (Ross, 2007, p. 22; Volkan, 2004, pp. 11–12). Studying conflicts from this angle one can differentiate between two types: material conflicts and identity conflicts. In the case of material conflicts, the dispute is mainly about fundamental concerns, such as territory, defense borders, natural resources, and the like. Efforts at conflict settlement, usually negotiated between formal representatives of the warring sides, sometimes with the mediation of third parties—usually governmental or international agents—are mainly aimed at satisfying the material aspects of the two sides, namely guaranteeing safe and recognized borders, assuring supply of oil, gas, basic commodities, etc. Little attention is given to identity issues, since they have probably not played a crucial role in the evolution and dynamics of the conflict. In the case of identity conflicts, it is the need for identity that lies at the center of the feud. An identity conflict erupts when at least one side feels that the other has negated its identity and denied its right as a legitimate player in the international arena. The emphasis on the subjective aspect of the identity conflict does not mean that there is no objective factual base to the imagined world of negative feelings, emotions, or beliefs entertained by one of the sides in relation to the other. It rather highlights those factors that explain, at least according to the psycho-political school, the depth and intensity of the mutual hostility between the sides in an identity conflict. The collective identity is founded upon and nourished by national narratives. National narratives about past and present glories and traumas, where the “other” was either the defeated (in case of glories) or the victorious (in traumas), are the building blocs of national/ethnic identity. Their centrality in identity conflicts suggests that they can be (and usually are) barriers to a reconciliation process between the torn apart foes (Ross, 2007), but they can also trigger such a process. It is hereby proposed that if one wishes to unearth more concealed positive potential of narratives, one should differentiate between the basic narratives held by each side, which we term metanarratives, which are more deeply rooted in the national psyche, and therefore more resistant to change, and national narratives, which, although based on the more abstract metanarratives, are more factually based and therefore potentially more flexible.

One should bear in mind of course, that these two types of conflicts are ideal types in the Weberian sense. Hence, real conflicts are usually cases where material and identity issues are inextricably interwoven. Thus, the parties in a material conflict have their own, usually conflicting, narratives regarding central issues and events, and they will draw upon them to bolster their position and justify their conduct. On the other hand, identity conflicts have some vital material aspects, which should be taken into consideration when embarking on conflict resolution. However, while the chances of bringing about the settlement of material conflicts by focusing on political, military, and economic aspects are reasonable (e.g., Germany and most of the European allies after World War II), identity conflicts, fueled and exacerbated by the constant cultivation of mutual victimhood narratives, need more. They require a deep and long process of attitude change, namely, reconciliation. Reconciliation, in the full meaning of the word (as defined by Kriesberg, 1998a, 351–352), cannot be achieved without tackling the identity issues and the narratives on which they are built. This section will present metanarratives and national narratives and discuss their role in reconciliation, largely using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a reference.

A narrative is “. . . a story, and stories tell about things that have happened or are happening to people, animals, aliens from outer space, insects—whatever. That is, a story contains a sequence of events, which means that narratives take place within or over . . . some kind of time period” (Berger, 1997, p. 4). A narrative has a plot, which must stand the test of coherence and consistency in order to be powerful and convincing. It has five interrelated components which address the following W questions: Who are the heroes of the story? What happened? When, where, and why did it happen? (Shuman, 1903; Later, a sixth question was added: The how question, which is sometimes submerged in the five others; Manoff & Shudson, 1986). The innate relationship between these five components lends coherence and strength to the narrative. It also alludes to the possibility of deconstructing the narrative into its constituent components. This has special significance when discussing the role of national narratives in reconciliation.

Narratives in general, and particularly national ones in an identity conflict, are not “merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events in their aspect as developmental processes, but rather entail ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications” (Hyden, as cited in Tachibana, 1998, p. 247). The epistemic, ontological, and ideological meanings of such narratives are derived from and inspired by metanarratives.

The term “Meta” denotes “a nature of a higher order or more fundamental kind” (Brown, 1993, p. 1753). Metanarratives are stories about stories, i.e., they locate “national” stories within a wider, holistic scheme. Lyotard claims that postmodernism is characterized by growing suspicions towards the old, big, all-encompassing metanarratives such as Christianity, the Enlightenment, Liberalism, Marxism, Freudianism, etc. However, he admits that local and national metanarratives still heavily influence ethnic groups (Lyotard, 1988, 1992). One might posit that the impact of such national metanarratives is even greater and more evident when ethnic groups are in the process of building (or rebuilding) their national identity.

The crucial role of national metanarratives (also referred to as myths, see Kolakowski, 1970; Mali, 2003; Smith, 1999; and as shared worldviews, Ross, 2003, 2007) as sources of identity and national legitimacy makes them “the basis of competing claims to territory, patrimony and resources,” thus contributing to the transformation of “normal conflicts of interest . . . into cultural wars” (Smith, 1999, p. 9). The conflicting claims in identity conflicts are not (at least not solely) inspired by demands on soil, water, or oil, which are naturally divisible and therefore relatively easy to reconcile, but by deep beliefs regarding national identity and rights to a specific territory, which are rooted in ancient history and are consequently strongly held and maybe nonnegotiable.

What makes the metanarrative in identity conflicts particularly resistant to change is the focus on “the consciousness of (past, and often also present) victimhood among those groups that feel threatened, or are still burdened by the memories of past sufferings” (Bartov, 2003, p. 42). Ethnic groups, still entangled in sharp disputes over national identity and territory, have become more and more preoccupied with the issue of victim versus victimizer, particularly since the 1960s, often believing that they are the one and only victim in the conflict and the others are the perpetrators (Barkan, 2000, 2005; Montville, 1993, 2002).

If one wishes to understand the heavy impact of national metanarratives on the dynamics of an ongoing identity conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a good example. Here, the clash of national metanarratives is particularly accentuated, producing a long and bloody conflict focused around the three issues mentioned above:

  • 1Identity, i.e., what is the collective legal status of each of the sides? Are they ethnic groups? Religious communities? National entities?
  • 2Issues regarding each side's rights to disputed territory, i.e., who is entitled to such territory? To part or to all of it? What justifies the claims?
  • 3Issues concerning suffering and victimhood, i.e., who is the victim and who is the victimizer?

The two protagonists view the disputed issues through the prism of their respective national metanarratives. Regarding identity, each side sees itself as a national entity, entitled to all the legitimate rights of a full member of the family of nations. However, while many Israelis have come to recognize the Palestinians as a national entity—particularly following the second Intifada—the majority of Palestinians claim that Jews, or more precisely, Israeli Jews, are not an “authentic nation” (Kelman, 2001). Moreover, it seems the denial of the Jews as a national entity entitled to its own country is gaining momentum in Palestinian society, both in and outside Israel. The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, a body incorporating the heads of Arab local authorities in Israel, on December 5, 2006, published a document entitled, “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel.” In this document, authorized by the representatives of all Arab political factions in Israel, part of the first chapter reads as follows: “Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Jewish-Zionist elite in Europe and the West and realized by colonial countries, contributing to it, and by promoting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in light of the results of World War II and the Holocaust” (National Committee, 2006, p. 5). Reactions from the Israeli (predominantly Jewish) population, as expressed in talkbacks, have been as harsh and offensive as one could expect (Talkbacks, Ha'aretz, 2006).

Other basic beliefs regarding identity, far more accentuated in Israeli (Jewish) heritage, are those of “ethnic election” and even more so the idea of “the covenant” (Smith, 1999). The repercussions of such beliefs are quite remarkable, as Smith notes: “Ethnic election myths, and particularly covenantal schemes, confer on the communities that evolve such beliefs an extraordinary sense of rectitude and moral superiority” (p. 267).

This self-inflating image fuels and exacerbates identity conflicts, particularly if Smith is right in noting a difference between communities with rich and well-documented ethno-histories, like the Jews (his example), and those with a weaker cultural heritage. Referring to the latter he points out: “. . . their very lack of rich ethno-history relative to other, better-endowed neighbors stimulates these culturally peripheral and politically underprivileged communities to remedy this deficiency in a world where power stems from culture, in the same way as relative economic deprivation often spurs resentment and political emulation” (1999, p. 266).

Palestinian Arabs, unlike the Jews, are not defined by language, culture, or religion. They are constantly seeking for a defining point for their identity. The battle over the control of Palestine has eventually brought them to define their identity in terms of the contested territory (Neuberger, 1990).

Territory has thus become the main point of conflict between the two sides and their two very different metanarratives. The Palestinians see the battle with Israel as the continuation of the war against European colonization, which started in the twelfth century and culminated with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 (Connerton, 1989). This belief, which gives them total and exclusive rights to Palestine, stands in sharp contrast to the Israeli (Jewish) conviction that Eretz Israel (“The Land of Israel” in Hebrew) is their divinely Promised Land. Thus, both sides exclusively claim the same territory and reject the other's arguments as false.

Victimhood has become especially predominant in the Middle East conflict. Each side sees itself both as the historic victim and as the definitive victim of the other. For the Israelis, the conflict with the Arabs, and more particularly the Palestinians, is inextricably bound to their history of suffering, exiles, and pogroms, culminating with the Holocaust. The Palestinians “perceive themselves as victims of a long process that started with the British and continued with Israel in 1947–49, a process that denied their national existence” (Barkan, 2005, p. 89).

Indeed, “al-Nakba,” the Arab term for the perceived 1948 catastrophe, whereby hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes and became refugees, whether in “their stolen homeland,” the State of Israel, or in neighboring Arab countries, became their ultimate “chosen trauma” (Volkan, 1997, p. 48). It has deepened and exacerbated the sense of humiliation and helplessness passed on from generation to generation all over the Muslim world since the decline of the Muslim civilization at the end of the fifteenth century. Thus, the al-Nakba for the Palestinians, like the Shoah (“Holocaust”) for the Jews (which are different and altogether incomparable events), reinforced their respective victimhood metanarratives. These two “chosen traumas” have become part of the two people's respective identities.

Let us now sum up this suggested terminology before examining how we can use it to study reconciliation in identity conflicts.

Metanarratives are the all-encompassing, interpretive frameworks which incorporate the basic symbols, values, beliefs, and behavioral codes of a collective, and serve, therefore, as the symbolic representation of the national ethos. These “meta” frameworks are believed to be formulated and conferred to the people by a mythic figure, often considered to possess some kind of divine quality (such as Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammad). They are therefore deemed sacred and untouchable. Efforts at changing the metanarratives in identity conflicts are doomed to failure, at least when attempted too early, because they are perceived as a direct attack on the most cherished values and symbols of each protagonist.

Metanarratives are abstract, intangible, and nonfigurative. In order to be transmitted to and understood by ordinary people they need to take on concrete form and reality. In the Middle East context, Israelis find it difficult to identify with abstractions like self-sacrifice for the good of their country, but they can identify with Joseph Trumpeldor, who was killed fighting the Arabs in 1920 with his dying words allegedly being: “it is good to die for our country.” Palestinians cannot imagine a future era of Arab glory without the image of Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders, before their eyes. In this way, the nation's founding fathers, riding the chariots of divinely inspired metanarratives, cross the bridge of national narratives on their way to becoming real-life, tangible heroes.

National narratives are concrete stories about national heroes and iconic events in a nation's history, told, retold, and reshaped by circumstances over generations. They derive their meaning and significance from the metanarrative and are therefore respected almost as much. As we will see, the “ideal” national narrative is a solid, self-sustained edifice that plays an important role in conflict development and often contributes to its exacerbation (Ross, 2007). However, its story-like structure makes it potentially more flexible and open to change if and when the two sides embark on a voyage of reconciliation.

The “Reconciliation Pyramid” presented below presumes that partners in an identity conflict will not be able to reach reconciliation unless they become acquainted with each other's narratives, acknowledge their legitimacy, and be ready to incorporate them into their own. This analysis suggests that metanarratives should be left to the end of the process. By focusing on the concrete national narratives each side has assembled over the course of the conflict, they might be able, through narrative deconstruction, to isolate the more factual and less contestable components of these stories and thus gradually move forward.

The assumptions underlying the Reconciliation Pyramid echo Kaufman's symbolic politics theory, according to which, “the core causes of ethnic war [hereby termed identity conflicts] are ethnic hostility and the myths [hereby referred to as metanarratives] and fears that promote it” (Kaufman, 2001, p. 42). Kaufman sees as a mistake the tendency of theoreticians and diplomats to dismiss peace building [reconciliation] as either naïve or ineffective, and calls upon peace builders to help the two feuds to “replace the myths about the other side with better information, to replace the hostility and fear with understanding, and most of all to build cooperative inter-ethnic relationship to replace stereotyped hostile ones” (p. 42). He suggests that ethno-nationalist myths should be “recast into cooperative and tolerant ones, especially by promoting the writing and teaching of fair-minded history instead of the ethnocentric and scapegoating kind” (2001, pp. 42–43).

In view of the crucial role of national narratives in sustaining the antagonists' identities and sense of value and pride, the task of replacing them with more nuanced and inclusive narratives is not easy. The following section will endeavor to explain what turns national narratives into barriers to peace building. At the same time it will elaborate on their potential for conflict mitigation, alluded to by some of the reconciliation scholars (most particularly Ross, 2003, 2007).

The Role of National Narratives in Identity Conflicts

National narratives in an identity conflict tend to be “constructed as (a) set of binary opposites” (Cobb, 2003, p. 304). All constituent parts will be clearly and sharply delineated and then contrasted with their negatives in a way allowing for no confusion between perceived good and bad. If we follow Cobb's thinking and expand it in light of the five W questions mentioned above, national narratives can be characterized as follows:

Who? In a typical national narrative the number of protagonists will be limited, with a clear division between the “good” (us) and the “bad” (them). The “good” group is portrayed as the very incarnation of merit: peace lovers, righteous, honest, irreproachable, and above all, victims of the other side—the “bad”—which is of course the embodiment of wickedness and evil.

An “ideal” national narrative will not differentiate between the leaders and the people of the other side, or between different layers of society. The “other” is perceived as a whole, whose constituent parts are subsumed into the collective identity. “The atrocities [attributed to the other] are held to reveal the essential identity . . . of the people(s) in whose name they are committed” (Ignatieff, 1999, p. 177).

What? The answer to this seemingly factual question should be simple and uncontestable, but it never is. The What question in a national narrative cannot be stripped from its mythological ties, which draw on the metanarrative and earlier national narratives. A classic example is the dramatic, heart-wrenching picture of the 12-year-old boy, Mohammed al-Dura, caught in a clash between Israeli and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip on September 30, 2000. The video, made by a French journalist, was broadcast around the world and presented by Palestinian television (and most of the international media) as an example of the Israel Defense Forces' excessive use of force and even as an intentional killing.

Later investigations into the incident, most notably by ARD German TV correspondent Esther Schapira, and Philippe Karsenty, founder of the French online media watchdog, Media Ratings, cast doubt upon this version. Yet this did not change the Palestinian perception of al-Dura as a victim of Israeli brutality. The innocent 12-year-old has taken his place on the never-ending list of Palestinian shahids (martyrs) and become a constant symbol of Palestinian victimhood (Liebes & First, 2003).

Why? Protagonists in an identity conflict usually adopt an attribution causal model (Jones & Nisbett, 1972; Ross & Nisbett, 1991). According to this model, antagonists will explain their and their adversary's behavior in a way that strengthens their moral position in the conflict. “Our” benign and conciliatory actions are attributed to our good and peace-loving nature, while our allegedly aggressive actions are portrayed as necessary reactions to the other's provocations. The same mechanism is used to explain the other's behavior. “Their” benevolent actions are imposed by circumstances (e.g., international pressure), while malevolent behavior stems from their inherent wickedness and belligerence. This pattern of attributing good motives to ourselves and bad motives to the other amplifies the negative perception of the other and sears it into one's consciousness. “Once identified, the existence of such motives seemingly makes it easy to ‘predict’ another's future actions, and through one's own behavior to turn such predictions to self-fulfilling prophesies” (Ross, 2007, p. 25). The causal component of the narrative adds an apparently logical, and in effect a psych-logical (Abelson & Rosenberg, 1958) dimension to the national narrative, which thus becomes strong, coherent, and starkly resistant to change.

Psych-logics also helps to settle apparent contradictions which often surface in contradicting national narratives, when, for example, each side views itself as simultaneously weak and strong. This contradiction will usually be reconciled by claiming: “we are fundamentally stronger, and will therefore win in the long run [if we behave wisely and do not yield to pressures]; the adversary is strong at the present [mainly because supported by mighty allies], but will ultimately be the loser” (Auerbach, and Ben-Yehuda, 1987, p. 327).

The responses to the Who, What, and Why questions are integrated into the victimhood metanarrative and become major obstacles in any path of reconciliation based on narrative dissolution and incorporation.

One would hope for better chances of reaching an agreement over the When and Where questions, which are ostensibly the most factual elements of the narrative. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The temporal-spatial dimensions are dragged into the binary structure of the national narratives almost as easily as the Who, What, and Why components.

National narratives involve “the reconstruction of temporal sequence in order to resituate a current predicament and enable future action” (Silverstein & Makdishi, 2006, p. 10). The collective group memory “retains only those events that are of pedagogic character. The very manner in which memory distorts the facts reflects the need to show that each one has significance beyond the event itself; that it has a logical place in the complete history and that it comprises all the others” (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 223). Both sides are motivated to focus their national narratives on the past because they wish to create a solid base for their contradictory demands and future action. The past, as told by protagonists, “has none of the fixed and stable identity of a document” (Ignatieff, 1999, p. 173). Furthermore, the “past is not past, and time . . . [is] simultaneous, not linear” (Ignatieff, 1999,p. 166). Volkan has coined the term “time collapse” to describe the process “in which the interpretations, fantasies and feelings about a past shared trauma commingle with those pertaining to a current situation” (Volkan, 1997, p. 35). The “time collapse” phenomenon applies to “chosen traumas” (p. 48) as well as to “chosen glories” (p. 81). For example, in the prayer recited by Jews on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim, each generation thanks the Almighty for “the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers . . . in those days, at this time.” There is no demarcation between past and present. What happened “in the days of Mordechai and Esther in Shushan” (the ancient capital of the Persian Empire) in 355 bce is equivalent to the events that took place “in the days of Mattathias, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons” in 139 bce. History is indeed destined to repeat itself, and time is blurred. Present enemies become just reincarnations of the same wicked people who have tried to exterminate the people of God throughout history. This narrative is transmitted from generation to generation, with each generation adding its contribution to the eternal story of suffering, victimhood, and miraculous salvation.

Where? The national narrative draws a clear distinction between Homeland and Exile. Homeland is the disputed territory each group claims as its own, often by virtue of a divine promise inscribed in the metanarrative. In the Middle East, national narratives will relate stories of endless battles between the legitimate owners of the Holy Land and those who have been unlawfully trying to appropriate it. Exile is everywhere the chosen group is dispersed outside this land. The people in exile will generally try to maintain their culture and avoid assimilation into local culture. They will preserve memories of their native land, lament their uprooting, and never stop dreaming about coming back to the beloved homeland. These deeply entrenched beliefs and feelings toward the land legitimate and fuel their nonnegotiable claim for the right of return to the homeland they were forced to leave.

The analysis of national narratives in an identity conflict suggests they are closed, coherent, self-sustained systems and unshakeable. Both sides are apprehensive that any change in their narratives or acceptance of even a small part of the other's narrative would shatter their identity. This is a simplified representation of national narratives. Even in sharp identity conflicts, there will be individuals and groups that will consider their own as well as the other's narrative in a more nuanced and subtle manner. Furthermore, narratives do change in the course of the conflict with or without connection to the behavior of the other side. However, this ideal type of national narrative emerges at times of crisis and increasing threats, when the need for bolstering national identity becomes more acute. As long as the antagonists, locked in their mutual sense of victimhood, put identity issues at the center of their conflict, the national narratives will basically keep their rigidity.

In light of this vicious circle of national narratives, with both sides perpetually negating each other and widening the gap of mistrust and hatred, any chance of reconciliation may seem impossible. Nevertheless, there are some examples of conflicts that do indeed appear to be on the—admittedly convoluted—road to reconciliation.

Current relations between China and Japan provide an example of a reasonably successfully resolved conflict, where former foes have realized that genuine reconciliation is needed, and that this requires the nongovernmental treatment of their clashing national narratives.

In December 2006, Japanese and Chinese scholars held the first in a planned series of historical study groups, ordered by their governments in order to mitigate hostility between the former enemies. There is a deep and seemingly unbridgeable gulf between Japan and China regarding What happened in the Japanese-Chinese conflict prior to the Second World War, Why it happened, and Who is responsible, particularly for “The Rape of Nanking” in 1937. The Chinese version claims the rape, brutalization, and death of at least 350,000 noncombatants (What) was committed by the government-controlled Japanese army (Who), demonstrating Japanese proclivities for ruthlessness and brutality (Why). While some fringe groups in Japan deny this narrative altogether, saying that the “massacre” was a fabrication of the communist government, the official Japanese narrative is that what happened was an accident of war whereby some 30–40,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives (What) because a few nonauthorized soldiers (Who) excessively reacted to Chinese provocation (Why).

The two delegations held a second meeting in March 2007. Both sides agreed to confront the discrepancies between their respective national narratives, while avoiding a discussion of the more controversial issues (such as the “comfort women”) and allegations regarding the sources of the mutual animosity (International Herald Tribune, 2007). The question of victim and victimizer has thus been put aside, paving the way to an agreement about the When and Where components of the clashing narratives. These elements, still in dispute between the two sides, may be easier to deal with than the more sensitive issues of identity and victimhood.

Having put forward a terminological framework for addressing the role of metanarratives and national narratives in the process of reconciliation and illustrated the problems as well as the potential of national narratives as avenues for reconciliation in identity conflicts, let us now present the Reconciliation Pyramid, using illustrations drawn mainly, though not exclusively, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Reconciliation Pyramid: Conceptualization

The Reconciliation Pyramid is a metaphor for presenting the progressive stages antagonists have to overcome on their way to reconciliation. It is built of seven consecutive stages (see Figure 1). The starting point of the reconciliation process is becoming acquainted with the clashing narratives relating to the core issues of their conflict. Familiarity with the narratives paves the way to full acknowledgement of them and may prepare the ground for a “warmer” move, like the expressions of empathy toward the other. Empathizing with the enemy can lead to the assumption of at least partial responsibility for the plight of the “other.” This relatively “cold” step may be followed by material restitution (a legally based formal step) and requests for forgiveness. The process reaches its apex when the two sides seriously and honestly consider replacing their old, ethno-centric narratives with new, integrated narratives, based on the mutual acknowledgment of past miseries and a joint vision of a the future.

Figure 1.

The Reconciliation Pyramid.

The pyramid is based on the following assumptions:

  • 1Reconciliation, meaning changing attitudes from denial and resentment to acceptance and trust, is essential, particularly in identity conflicts. (For the difference between material conflicts needing conflict resolution and identity conflicts demanding reconciliation, see Auerbach, 2005a.)
  • 2The reconciliation process in identity conflicts is a strenuous, prolonged, and gradated one. It can start before peace negotiations or run parallel to them, but will usually continue long after the two sides have agreed upon a formal peace agreement.
  • 3The process will usually be initiated by a narrow social stratum (e.g., authors, academics, religious authorities). Its success, however, requires the support of official decision makers as well as acceptance by wider layers of the respective societies.
  • 4The process incorporates both warm (empathy, apology, forgiveness) and cold (narrative acquaintance and acknowledgement) steps. The clashing national narratives in an identity conflict are the keys for understanding its tenacity as well as its potential for change.
  • 5Reconciliation between two sides first demands the dismantling and ultimately the incorporation of their conflicting national narratives into the public discourse of the two (previously) antagonistic societies.

The underlying idea of the Reconciliation Pyramid is that identity conflicts, centered on victimhood metanarratives that carry so much pain and humiliation, need reconciliation in order to heal the wounds of the injured peoples. Material arrangements achieved by political representatives at the negotiation table are crucial components of conflict resolution and may play an important role in easing the path toward reconciliation, but they cannot provide the psychological environment necessary for genuine reconciliation. In order for identity conflicts to transform into a lasting peace based on change of heart and mind, they require deeper and longer processes. Genuine reconciliation is a kind of an end-state which may be unattainable in most cases of protracted identity conflicts. But together with many scholars of reconciliation, I suggest that the vision of attaining it should guide peace seekers on both sides, and it is the duty of students of peace to explore ways through which this vision can be achieved. The Pyramid is an effort in this direction.

It is noteworthy that the Pyramid is an analytical framework which neither describes nor prescribes actual developments in reconciliation processes. Rather, it should be seen as a tool for studying the psycho-political processes involved in climbing the rungs of an imaginary reconciliation ladder. The formulation of the progressive movement along seven stages is based on insights drawn mainly from theoretical and empirical reconciliation literature. It is assumed that if one party does not have the slightest knowledge of the other's narratives of sufferance and victimhood, it cannot acknowledge or accept as legitimate these narratives, let alone feel empathy, assume responsibility, or offer restitution for it. Genuine apology towards the other, which is deemed a difficult but essential condition for reaching full reconciliation, will be easier if preceded by the above mentioned steps. Only then, when the cognitive as well as the emotional moves have been taken by both sides to the identity conflict, will they be prepared to jointly examine their convoluted history and integrate the contradictory national narratives into their public discourse.

However, the order and pace of the movement are not predestined. There may be movements back and forth across stages. It is suggested that reconciliation students use this Pyramid for investigating actual reconciliation cases and redesign it accordingly.

The Seven Stages of the Reconciliation Pyramid

Stage 1: Acquaintance with Clashing Narratives

Reconciliation literature typically highlights the importance of acknowledging the other's narrative in ethno-political conflicts (e.g., Govier and Verwoerd, 2002; Kriesberg, 1998b, 1998c, 2004; Lederach, 1997, 1998, 1999; Montville, 1993; Ross, 2004). However, not enough attention has been given to the difference between acquaintance, that is, knowing the facts about the other, and acknowledgement, which incorporates the recognition that the other's version has some validity.

One of the problems of an identity conflict is that long-standing mutual hatred and fear are so strong they cause each side to concentrate on their own plight. This eliminates any possibility of even becoming acquainted with the other's narratives. Not only are the two sides ignorant of the national narratives of the “other,” but they are incapable of candidly scrutinizing their own national narratives, particularly those concerning central issues in the conflict, and admitting to possible inaccuracies in their version of the truth. Preliminary steps toward narrative acquaintance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been made by two groups of Israeli and Palestinian teachers and academics—led by the late Professor Dan Bar-On, of the Behavioral Sciences Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Professor Sami Adwan, a lecturer in education at Bethlehem University. The two groups have agreed to cooperate in order to examine the contrasting Palestinian and Israeli narratives regarding core issues of the conflict, such as what is Zionism and when it started, the events of 1929 and 1936–39, the 1948 and 1967 wars, the causes of the First Intifada of 1987, etc.

The aim of this project was to introduce the conflicting national narratives into the history books of the two societies in a more neutral, balanced way and to thus initiate a chain of reactions which would eventually culminate in reconciliation. However, the Education Ministry during the Likud government of 1996–99 banned the project. By doing so, they gave voice to the prevalent view in Israeli society, that is, we should adhere to “our” version of history and not listen to appeaseniks (one of the pejorative terms used by Internet talkbackists to degrade the initiators of the project). Palestinian reactions were no warmer (Kashti, 2007). The respective objections notwithstanding, the project is continuing under the understanding that the seeds of mutual trust are weak and require persistent cultivation.

Stage 2: Acknowledging the Other's Narratives, Without Necessarily Accepting Them as True

Acknowledging the other's national narratives implies understanding and recognizing them as authentic and legitimate. The transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2 is not easy. Becoming acquainted with the other's version of central events in the conflict does not necessarily threaten one's own identity. However, acknowledging the other's core narratives constitutes a significant step toward lending legitimacy to national metanarratives. In a zero-sum identity conflict this may be tantamount to compromising one's own legitimacy (Kelman, 2001).

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one can detect small but significant progress on the Israeli side towards acquaintance with the Palestinian narratives, most particularly the al-Nakba (Catastrophe). However, although becoming familiar with it, most Israelis will adamantly refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the al-Nakba narrative, let alone participate in any Palestinian commemoration of it. A rare example of narrative acknowledgement on the Israeli part was a column published in the Israeli right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon (“Primary Source”) by Eyal Megged. Megged is one of the few Israeli writers who aligned himself with the country's political right wing. It was, therefore, surprising to read the following: “The barrier to reconciliation is emotional. Granting legitimacy to the authentic feelings of the Palestinians toward the whole country is the key for breaking this barrier” (Megged, 2006, p. 66). This intriguing, though not representative, call to the Israeli public to acknowledge the authenticity of Palestinian feelings has not yet attracted a counterpoint voice from the Palestinian side.

One can also see signs of readiness amongst Palestinian Arabs in Israel (the term used by the official representatives of Arab-Israeli citizens to define their identity; see The National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel, 2006, p. 3) to move towards acknowledgment of the other's foundational narratives, and particularly the place of the Holocaust in Israeli existential anxiety: for example, organizing and participating in joint Arab-Israeli visits to the death camps in Poland (Bar-On & Sarsar, 2004; Lavy, 2003). However, many Israelis treat these visits with suspicion; they see it as part of a sophisticated Palestinian plot to counteract the use of the Holocaust to delegitimize Israeli national identity. Despite such isolated attempts at rapprochement, the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are still far away from the acknowledgement phase.

The importance of narrative acquaintance and acknowledgement as the starting initiative of a reconciliation process was poignantly illustrated in the long-lasting Turkish-Armenian conflict. On April 10, 2005, the Turkish prime minister addressed a public letter to the president of Armenia to mark “the 90th anniversary of the 1915 events.” In his letter Prime-Minister Erdogan proposed “to establish a joint group consisting of historians and other experts from our two countries to study the developments and events of 1915 . . . and to share their findings with the international public.” He further expressed his belief “that such an initiative would shed light on a disputed period of history and also constitute a step towards contributing to the normalization of relations between our countries” (Erdogan, 2005).

But was this a genuine step toward narrative acknowledgement? A meticulous study of the letter and the News Brief issued by the Turkish Embassy in Washington will show that while demonstrating their awareness of the “disputed period of history,” namely the fact that the Armenians adhere to a different version of “the events of 1915,” nowhere do the Turks acknowledge the Armenian genocide narrative. The answers to the three most important W questions, namely, Who, What, and Why, draw a grim picture of the “Cataclysmic events of 1915,” when hundred of thousands of Turks and Armenians lost their lives (what). By emphasizing that these tragic events happened “during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire,” the Turks actually say: we, namely the present regime, cannot be blamed for whatever happened or was carried out by the previous regime (who). The why question gets a straightforward answer: it all happened “as a result of the Armenian revolt in the Ottoman Empire's eastern provinces.” The allegation made in the Turkish Embassy's Brief (though not in the letter to the Armenian president) that “Armenian terrorists” have “targeted Turkish compatriots . . . in the 1970's and 80's,” underscores the inherent aggressiveness and cruelty which presumably are innate Armenian characteristics, thus illustrating the aforementioned dual attribution pattern: “They” are inherently bad. “We” are just reacting to their gruesome acts (all quotes are from Turkey News Brief, 2005).

The reaction of the Armenian government to Erdogan's proposal was unsurprisingly negative: “. . . this kind of offer can be taken seriously only if there is some semblance of normalcy between our countries. Then, discussion on all other aspects of our relations, including the border and genocide can and should be carried out . . . with recognition of the crimes of the past, we can move on to a dialogue of reconciliation” (Oskanian, 2006, emphasis added).

The Turkish-Armenian example is indicative of the link between the realistic-material aspects of settling an identity conflict and its psycho-political features. Two parties to an identity-ethnic conflict may be pushed, by realistic calculations, to settle their dispute through diplomatic and other intergovernmental acts. Formal conflict settlement (“some semblance of normalcy”) should precede grassroots academic steps towards reconciliation. But without genuine efforts to tackle the issues of the past through narrative acquaintance and acknowledgement, there will be no reconciliation between peoples.

Stage 3: Expressing Empathy for the Other's Plight

Empathy, typically seen as the ability to identify with and understand another person's feelings, is a “warm” and very demanding move, hardly imaginable for two rivals in an identity conflict. Any empathetic exchange is much more likely on a personal level, for example, between parents on both sides who have lost their children in the conflict. In some societies, identification with the enemy may be considered tantamount to treason. In view of these difficulties, scholars underlining the political aspect of reconciliation (e.g., Amstutz, 2005; Digeser, 2001; Tavuchis, 1991) exclude empathy from their discussion. Eisikovits (2004) suggests replacing it with “sympathy.” However, if preceded by the acquaintance and acknowledgement of the other's narratives, empathy towards the other's suffering may become more feasible.

Stage 4: Assuming (at Least) Partial Responsibility for the Other's Alleged Plights

Assuming responsibility—even partially—may be tantamount to pleading guilty, which makes it very difficult for each side in an identity conflict. Israelis would not accept responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem, because it would be interpreted as an admission that Israel was “born in sin” (Kelman, 2001). Similarly, in the Ben-Gurion-Bethlehem universities acquaintance exercise mentioned above, the Israelis waited in vain for their Palestinian colleagues to admit responsibility for the killings of innocent Jews in Hebron and elsewhere during the Arab riots of 1936–39.

From time to time, there are efforts—mostly on the Israeli side—towards admitting responsibility for the suffering of the other. A typical example was a series of advertisements in the distinguished leftist daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, in which writers and artists called upon the leadership and peoples of the two nations to resume peace talks based on a mutual acknowledgment of the other's suffering, assuming partial responsibility and expressing empathy (Ha'aretz, 2005). But again, this initiative did not garner support from the wider Palestinian or Israeli societies.

Stage 5: Expressing Readiness for Restitution or Reparation for Past Wrongs

The four previous stages are typical “people-to-people” moves, usually initiated by small, elite groups hoping to transmit the reconciliation message throughout society and eventually reaching the political leadership. The fifth stage, expressing readiness for restitution and actually granting reparation to “victims of the state,” is a political act within the sole jurisdiction of formal decision makers. It is, therefore, a cold, calculated move, rarely taken by wary leaders. If and when such a decision is made, it may be a useful vehicle for reconciliation between former antagonists. Indeed, there is a school of thought that claims restitutions and reparations are crucial for restoring morality after evil and for bringing about a successful reconciliation process (Barkan, 2000, 2005).

However, if restitution is not accompanied by full acknowledgement of past evils and sincere forgiveness, the chances for genuine reconciliation between victim and perpetrator are scant. The reparations granted by West Germany to Israel in 1953 in the wake of the Holocaust provide a telling example. Although Israel-Germany relations today can be characterized as normal, and maybe even special (Gardner-Feldman, 1984), the relations between the two sides still bear the stamp of the past, and there is still no full reconciliation between the two countries. One possible reason for this is that neither Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who took the bold decision regarding reparations, nor any of his successors, has fully and genuinely acknowledged Germany's crimes towards the Jewish people, let alone made a sincere request for forgiveness (Auerbach, 2004, 2005a; Lustick, 2005).

Stage 6: Publicly Apologizing and Asking for Forgiveness for Past Wrongs

Forgiveness, which in terms of the suggested conceptualization is comparable to apology, is a crucial phase on the way to reconciliation in identity conflicts (Auerbach, 2004, 2005a).

From a “warm-cold” perspective, forgiveness can be seen as a complex phenomenon incorporating both elements. On the one hand, since it involves a public declaration resulting partly from practical considerations, it is a purely political and therefore a cold process. However, for the request of forgiveness to convey the right message and consequently contribute to reconciliation, it must be a genuine, warm expression of remorse, stemming from deep regret and the assumption of full responsibility. It is obviously very difficult to distinguish candid declarations of mea culpa from insincere political acts (Amstutz, 2005; Gibney & Roxtrom, 2001; Govier and Verwoerd, 2002). For example, the apology published by the Irish Republican Army in the wake of the 20th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” (1982) was seen as a cynical and manipulative act by many Protestants, especially the victims' families (Ferguson et al., 2007; Hewstone et al., 2004). Similarly, Prime Minister Tony Blair's June 1997 apology to the Irish for British behavior during the great famine of 1850 could have been presented as a politically motivated shrewd act that was “too late and too little.” Nevertheless, Northern Ireland largely applauded it as a significant moral move and an important step towards reconciliation (Henderson, 2002).

This blend of feelings, politics, and morality makes forgiveness so attractive for scholars from diverse disciplines, particularly from psychology, theology, and philosophy (e.g., Appleby, 2000; Enright & North, 1998; Gopin, 2000, 2002; Haber, 1991; Montville, 1993, 2002; Murphy 2003; Murphy & Hampton, 1988; Petersen 2002; Schimmel, 2002; Shriver, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002; Tutu, 1999; Worthington, 2005, 2006). The issues most frequently discussed by these scholars are: Should political forgiveness be considered as a genuinely moral expression of remorse and repentance, or as a cynical act of public relations? Is it possible to forgive and, at the same time, not forget? And if not, should a victim, be it an individual or a national collective, forgive his perpetrators? Is forgiveness a realistic and necessary condition for reconciliation between peoples? What is the best timing for a useful bid of forgiveness, and how should it be made? Should it start the reconciliation process or end it? (Auerbach, 2005b; Wiesenthal, 1998).

In the case of South Africa, it is noteworthy that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by Prime Minister Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the main mechanism for establishing peace and reconciliation between blacks and whites, did not make forgiveness a condition for amnesty. White offenders were invited to appear before the Commission, relate the story of their crimes against the black population, and take full responsibility for their actions. Despite the importance attributed to forgiveness by Archbishop Tutu (as reflected in the title of his book: No Future without Forgiveness, 1999), he did not insist on it. Why not? Apparently, both these visionary but nonetheless realist leaders realized that South Africa could have immediately deteriorated into an even bigger bloodbath, possibly providing an excuse for the restoration of apartheid, had they insisted on starting with the crucial yet difficult step of forgiveness. Forgiveness has been deferred to a later stage of reconciliation in South Africa.

With such cases in mind, the Reconciliation Pyramid framework positions forgiveness as the sixth stage, following cold, cognitively based as well as warm, emotionally based steps. By this stage, hopefully having overcome the plethora of realistic and psychological difficulties, there is a greater chance of forgiveness and consequently full reconciliation.

Stage 7: Striving to Incorporate Opposite Narratives into Accepted Mutual Accounts of the Past

It has been suggested that the reconciliation process will only be completed “. . . if the two groups communicate their stories and form a public common history. The public narrative needs to consider positive and negative behaviors of both sides of the conflict” (Worthington, 2006, p. 263) and incorporate them into the common narrative of the conflict.

Indeed, if and when the two sides to an identity conflict have managed to climb the aforementioned rungs, they should be ripe for a fully fledged narrative incorporation, which will bring the reconciliation between them to its culmination. However, in view of the difficulties inherent in each of the stages of the Reconciliation Pyramid, the probability of reaching this last stage seems quite slim. But if one adopts a less ambitious version of narrative incorporation, the seemingly unattainable goal may become more realistic. Following other narrative researchers, I believe that “it is not required that all parties settle on a single interpretation, only that they are mutually tolerant of a limited set of interpretations” regarding the disruptive events which fuel the conflict (Dwyer, 1999, p. 89; see also Kelman, 2004; Staub, 2006).

The Reconciliation Pyramid is an “ideal type model.” It does not claim to replicate reality or be another technique for resolving intractable conflicts (such as various third party intervention methods described in Fisher, 2001b, 2005; Kelman & Fisher, 2003, the most notorious being the “problem-solving interactive workshops” suggested by Kelman, 1979, 1997, 2001). The seven stages are arranged in ascending difficulty, and it is assumed that the parties will not attain a higher level before going through the preceding one. But the order of the phases is not preordained. In some cases restitutions will precede apology (e.g., Israel-West Germany); in others the two phases will coincide (e.g., USA-Japanese Americans). In still others, asking for forgiveness will be detached from reparations (e.g., Britain-Ireland). Moving along the rungs of the Pyramid is by no means automatic or easy. Crucially, the seven stages are not of equal importance. Arguably, the first two are necessary to ignite the engine of reconciliation. Their significance derives from the crucial role collective narratives play in transmitting a nation's consciousness and memory and in sustaining the collective identity.

Reconciliation in ongoing identity conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian one is an important enough goal to justify interdisciplinary academic efforts to study the chances of and barriers to its achievement. The Reconciliation Pyramid represents such an effort. It is a tool for exploring reconciliation processes. More precisely, it is a benchmark by which reconciliation researchers, using the questionnaire presented in the appendix (see appendix), can measure how far the two sides are from the top of the pyramid or how close or symmetrical their positions along the pyramid's rungs are. Such comparative examination can also reveal the extent of congruity between this ideal type model and real reconciliation processes, thus contributing to the improvement of the model and the enhancement of empirical and theoretical reconciliation knowledge. It is my hope that the Pyramid will inspire empirical research and thus contribute to the understanding and enhancement of reconciliation in still ongoing cases of identity conflicts.

Concluding Remarks

At the Camp David negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in 2000, Dan Meridor, former Justice and Finance Minister in the Likud government, suggested separating the question of territorial rights from the actual fulfillment of these rights. Israel would acknowledge the Palestinian right to return to Haifa, Jaffa, and other places inhabited by an Arab population before 1948, but demand the Palestinians renounce the realization of this right.

Similarly, Palestinians would acknowledge Israel's historical links to Bethlehem and Nablus, and in return, the Israelis would relinquish the idea of actually living there, at least not as Israeli citizens. For Meridor, this constituted a radical concession, which could have brought about sharp condemnation within Israeli public opinion, let alone Meridor's own right-wing constituency. However, the Palestinians, who apparently perceived the acknowledgement of Israeli rights to even one piece of territory in “Palestine” as an act of recognizing Israel's national identity—which would consequently mean the denial of their own—rejected Meridor's suggestion. In Meridor's eyes, this episode attested to the complete intransigence of the Palestinians and deepened his own pessimism regarding their readiness to walk together along the reconciliation path (Meridor, 2006).

Is this pessimism justified? It depends. In contrast to other conflicts cited in this article such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, or China-Japan, where we have seen significant advancement towards peace and reconciliation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be akin to treading through quicksand. Serious efforts have been made to bridge the gaps both at the highest levels and through nonofficial, track-two diplomacy, but to no avail.

Arguably, one of the most important reasons for this is the huge contradiction between the metanarratives of the two sides, where issues of identity, territory, and victimhood are inextricably intertwined. The Camp David episode, as reported by Meridor, apparently lends veracity to the claim that while the Israelis may have overcome some psychological barriers (hitherto preventing critical narrative scrutiny), the Palestinians are still buried in their identity-territory nexus dominated by the victimhood theme. For them, “giving up the victimhood narrative seems incompatible with survival itself” (Govier, 2002, p. 148).

On the basis of the framework proposed here, let us suggest a somewhat more nuanced conclusion. Meridor is essentially telling us one cannot and should not try and resolve identity conflicts without proper understanding of their inherent psychological dynamics. Meridor's proposal, originating from very good intentions, was the wrong act, committed by the wrong man, at the wrong time. For the Palestinians as well as for many Israelis, the deeper implication of Meridor's suggestion was to shatter the very foundations of their most cherished metanarratives of identity, territory, and victimhood. As we have illustrated, metanarrative dissolution is a very advanced stage in the reconciliation process. It cannot be executed by a formal representative of one side, and surely not at such an early stage of the peace process, when each side is still mistrustful of the other. Instead, it is a prolonged process to be undertaken by representatives of two respective civilian societies, parallel to the formal peace process (Klein, 2006). As we have suggested, this process should follow the seven stages of the Reconciliation Pyramid, beginning with the cold move of becoming acquainted with the other's national narratives, breaking them down into their component parts, identifying the parts that are less controversial and/or essential, and eventually crafting full, mutual acknowledgement of the contrasting national narratives. Only then will the sides be ready to express empathy, assume responsibility, and suggest restitution for at least part of the other's suffering. By this stage, the door will hopefully have opened to a meaningful and mutual bid of forgiveness.

The opposite metanarrative will not appear as threatening as it was at the foot of the pyramid, and the two sides will be ready to consider suggestions such as that of Meridor. They may display readiness to introduce different versions of their national narratives into the public discourse, particularly—but not exclusively—through the school curriculum (as recommended by Bar-Tal & Teichman, 2005; Naveh and Yogev, 2002), and finally integrate them into a shared common narrative of the conflict. When international relations reach this Everest—the pinnacle of the Reconciliation Pyramid—the world will be a much better place in which to live.


The Reconciliation Pyramid is posited in this article as a heuristic tool for exploring reconciliation processes. This can be done through interpersonal interviews, focus groups, or surveys. Initial steps have already been made to test the validity of the assumptions and the reliability of the questionnaire built upon the Reconciliation Pyramid in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This writer and one of her colleagues have held several half-structured interviews with influential personalities among Jewish and Palestinian communities in the State of Israel. The core questions as derived from the Pyramid model were the following:

  • 1)To what extent are you familiar with the other's versions (national meta narratives) of the conflict regarding his and your mutual:
    • a)Collective identity: As a nation, religion, ethnic group.
    • b)Right to and sovereignty over the disputed territory.
    • c)Identity of the main victim in the conflict.
  • 2)To what extent are you familiar with the other's versions (national narratives) regarding core issues of the conflict such as the 1948, 1967, 1973 wars; the refugee problem; the Intifada, etc.
  • 3)To what extent do you accept as true/authentic the other's versions of the conflict?
  • 4)To what extent are you ready to take full or partial responsibility for the other's suffering?
  • 5)To what extent does the other deserve reparations or restitution of some sort?
  • 6)To what extent are you ready to feel empathy with the other's suffering and apologize for your wrongdoing in the conflict?
  • 7)To what extent are you ready that your leadership issues a public declaration whereby it apologizes to the other?
  • 8)Do you believe that it is worthwhile and/or possible to integrate the conflicting narratives into one shared account of the conflict?
  • 9)Do you believe that the above mentioned steps (1–9) will promote genuine reconciliation?
  • 10)How should the process of reconciliation be carried out? What is the best timing for it: before, parallel to, or after the formal peace process? Who should initiate and undertake this process? Government? NGOs? Civil society, meaning intellectual elites and media?

The answers were, one may say, unsurprising, and quite disenchanting in terms of prospects for reconciliation between the two quarrelling sides. On the methodological level, the interviews proved the utility and validity of the main research tool, namely the questionnaire built on the Reconciliation Pyramid, as a benchmark for assessing the perceptions and attitudes of our interlocutors regarding the process of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. It enabled us to discern subtle differences among the interviewees on each side and between the two sides regarding their readiness to climb the Reconciliation Pyramid. The questionnaire will have to be revised in further empirical study according to the mode (focus groups, surveys) of inquiry.


This article was written while a Sabbatical Fellow at “The Desmond Tutu Centre for War & Peace Studies,” Hope University, Liverpool. An earlier version of this article was presented at the thirty first annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, July 9–12, Paris. The author wishes to thank Herbert Kelman and Nehemia Geva, as well as the anonymous referees of the manuscript, for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Yehudith Auerbach, Division of Communication and Journalism Studies, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan 52900, Israel. E-mail: