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date: 21 July 2017

Intractable Conflict and Peacemaking from a Socio-Psychological Approach

Summary and Keywords

Intractable conflicts are demanding, stressful, painful, exhausting, and costly both in human and material terms. In order to adapt to these conditions, societies engaged in such protracted, violent conflict develop an appropriate socio-psychological infrastructure that eventually becomes the foundation for the development of culture of conflict. The infrastructure fulfills important functions for the societies involved, yet stands also as a major socio-psychological barrier to peaceful resolution of the conflict. Transforming the nature of the relations between two societies that were in hostile and violent rivalry requires a dramatic societal change of replacing the socio-psychological repertoire among society members and establishing a new culture of peace. This process of peacemaking is very long and extremely challenging; however, if successful, the past rival sides may establish stable and lasting peaceful relations.

Keywords: conflict resolution, culture of conflict, culture of peace, ethos of conflict, ethos of peace, intractable conflict, peace-building

Foundations and Dynamics of Intractable Conflicts

Intergroup conflicts are an inseparable part of human interactions, and they have taken place at various levels throughout the ages (Fisher, 2000). They have been fought over contradictory goals in different domains such as territories, resources, control, influence, trade, autonomy, self-determination, statehood, freedom of religion, or cultural values. Of special importance are severe violent confrontations between ethnic-national groups, called intractable conflicts, which have determinative effect on the well-being of the participating societies, and also often influence the security and welfare of the international community (Kriesberg, 2007). These conflicts last for a long period of time because the disagreements over goals and interests are fueled by a socio-psychological repertoire that is well grounded in the culture of the engaged societies (Kelman, 2007). That is, in long-standing, violent, and vicious intractable conflicts, societies evolve a culture of conflict that has tremendous influence on the way these conflicts are managed. This culture provides important foundations for their continuation, and serves as a barrier to their resolution. Conflicts in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, or Chechnya provide good examples of this type of conflict. However, in spite of their intractable characteristics, such harsh, protracted conflicts throughout human history have been peacefully resolved. The conflicts between Israel and Egypt, the Algerian conflict, and the conflicts in South Africa, El Salvador, and Guatemala, are examples of intractable conflicts that ended peacefully, which testify that this possibility exists.

The present article elucidates the societal dynamics of intractable conflicts and analyzes the macro process of peacemaking with a socio-psychological conceptual framework that was developed in the last three decades (see Bar-Tal, 1998, 2007a, 2011, 2013; Bar-Tal & Geva, 1986; Bar-Tal & Halperin, 2013; Bar-Tal, Kruglanski, & Klar, 1989). Although intractable conflicts may differ in their context, contents, and characteristics, the conception offered here suggests that the general socio-psychological principles and dynamics are similar in most of the cases, if not all of them. Specifically, at first the features of intractable conflicts are defined. Then, the evolvement of the socio-psychological infrastructure and its functions is described, and a general analysis of culture of conflict is provided to present the socio-psychological barriers that obstruct peaceful conflict resolution. Next, the challenging endeavor of embarking on the road of peacemaking, which requires the change of particular conflict-supportive perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and motivations, is described.

Features of Intractable Conflicts

The following seven features were proposed to characterize intractable interethnic conflicts (Bar-Tal, 1998, 2007a; Kriesberg, 1993, 1998).

  1. (1) They are total. Intractable conflicts are perceived as being about essential and basic goals, needs, and/or values that are regarded as indispensable for the society’s existence and/or survival.

  2. (2) Intractable conflicts are violent. They involve physical violence in which society members (soldiers and civilians) are killed and wounded in either wars, small-scale military engagements, or terrorist attacks.

  3. (3) Intractable conflicts are perceived as irresolvable. Society members involved in intractable conflict do not perceive a possibility of resolving the conflict peacefully.

  4. (4) They are perceived as being of zero-sum nature, as all-out conflicts, without willingness to compromise and with adherence of each side to all of its original goals.

  5. (5) They are central. Intractable conflicts occupy a central place in the lives of the individual and of the society as a whole. Members of the society are involved constantly and continuously with the conflict.

  6. (6) They demand extensive investment. Parties engaged in an intractable conflict make vast material (i.e., military, technological, and economic) and psychological investments in order to cope successfully with the situation.

  7. (7) They are protracted. Intractable conflicts persist for a long time, at least a generation, which means that at least one generation has not known another reality.

These seven characteristics indicate that intractable conflicts constitute a very particular type of severe conflicts, which are very difficult to resolve. Some of these features of intractable conflict are purely psychological, such as viewing it as being existential, irresolvable, and of zero-sum nature. Other characteristics are associated with different realms of experience. All of the features may evolve with time and each of them has its own pace of development. Once all of them appear, the state of intractability begins, while each characteristic contributes to this chronic reality. It is only when all the seven features emerge in their extreme form that intractable conflicts appear in their most extreme, prototypical nature.

In reality, intractable conflicts differ from case to case and with time in terms of the configuration of these seven characteristics and of the intensity with which each of them take place (see, also, Coleman, 2003). Moreover, they fluctuate and thus move on the dimension of low-high intractability, as they may deescalate and then escalate again. This dynamic is contingent upon the transitional context of the intractable conflict, which pertain to the conditions in which the two rival parties live during the conflict, as well as the conditions that the international community creates. Some intractable conflicts thus continue with violent cycles, while others at a particular stage are relatively well-managed and appear stabilized, until circumstances change again.

Challenges of Intractable Conflicts

The described characteristics of intractable conflicts clearly imply that these conflicts inflict severe negative experiences to individuals and groups in the participating societies such as threat, stress, pain, exhaustion, grief, traumas, misery, hardship, and enormous cost both in human and material terms (see, for example, Cairns, 1996; de Jong, 2002; Robben & Suarez, 2000). Also, during intractable conflicts collective life is marked by continuous confrontation that requires mobilization and sacrifice of the society members. This situation is chronic, as it persists for a long time. Thus, members must adapt to the conditions in both their individual and collective lives (see, for example, Hobfoll & deVries, 1995; Lindert & Levav, 2015; Shalev, Yehuda, & McFarlane, 2000).

From the psychological perspective, this adaptation requires meeting three basic challenges. First, it is necessary to satisfy individual and collective needs that remain deprived during intractable conflicts, like, for example, psychological needs of knowing, mastery, safety, positive identity, and so on (Burton, 1990; Staub, 2003; Tajfel, 1982). If people are to function properly as individuals and society members, their needs must be fulfilled (Maslow, 1954). Second, it is necessary to learn to cope with the stress, fears, and other negative psychological phenomena that accompany intractable conflict situations. Third, adaptation requires development of psychological conditions that will be conducive to successfully withstanding the rival group, that is, to attempt to win the conflict or, at least, not to lose it.

In order to meet the above challenges, societies in conflict develop a functional socio-psychological repertoire that includes shared beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and emotions, and provides the necessary ingredients for successful adaptation to the context of intractable conflict.1 It eventually turns into a societal psychological infrastructure, which means that the shared repertoire is crystallized into a well-organized system of societal beliefs,2 attitudes, and emotions that penetrates into institutions and communication channels of the society.

Socio-Psychological Infrastructure in Intractable Conflicts

The central socio-psychological infrastructure, which plays a determinative role in intractable conflict, consists of three elements that are in mutual interrelations: collective memories, ethos of conflicts, and collective emotional orientation. The first two elements provide well-structured conflict-supportive collective narratives3 of which the societal beliefs described hereinafter are their building blocks.

Collective Memory of Conflict

Collective memory consists of the master narrative as well as specific collective narratives that present the history of the conflict to society members (Cairns & Roe, 2003; Connerton, 1989; Halbwachs, 1992; Paez & Liu, 2011; Wertsch, 2002). The master narrative that develops over time describes the conflict’s beginning and its course, and provides a coherent and meaningful picture of the conflict (Devine-Wright, 2003). In terms of particular contents, the narratives of collective memory touch upon at least four important themes in terms of the perception of the conflict and its management. First, they justify the outbreak of the conflict and the course of its development. Second, they present a positive image of the in-group (e.g., Baumeister & Gastings, 1997). Third, they delegitimize the opponent (Bar-Tal, 1990, Bar-Tal & Hammack, 2012; Oren & Bar-Tal, 2007). Fourth, the beliefs of collective memory present its own society as the victim of the opponent (Bar-Tal, Chernyak-Hai, Schori, & Gundar, 2009). This view is formed over a long period of violence as a result of the society’s sufferings and losses, and even sometimes viewed as “chosen trauma” (Bar-Tal, 2003; Mack, 1990; Volkan, 1997).

It follows that opposing groups in a conflict will often entertain contradictory and selective historical collective memories of the same events (Tint, 2010). By selectively including, or excluding, certain historical events and processes from the collective memory, a group characterizes itself and its historical experiences that count in unique and exclusive ways (Baumeister & Gastings, 1997; Irwin-Zarecka, 1994). Such a narrative, by definition, is unique, distinctive, and exclusive. It tells the particular story of the group’s past and reflects a group’s self-description and characterization. The narrative of collective memories relating to an intractable conflict thereby provides a black and white picture, which enables parsimonious, fast, unequivocal, and simple understanding of the history of the conflict (Bar-Tal, 2013).

Ethos of Conflict

In addition to the narratives of collective memory, societies also construct a narrative about the present, which serves as their ethos.4 Under prolonged intractable conflict, societies develop a particular ethos of conflict, which gives society members a general orientation and direction, and provides a clear picture of the conflict, its goals, its conditions, requirements, images of their own society and of their rival (Bar-Tal, 2000, 2013; Bar-Tal, Sharvit, Halperin, & Zafran, 2012). The ethos of conflict is comprised of societal beliefs of eight major themes about issues related to the conflict, the in-group, and its adversary. They include:

  1. (1) Societal beliefs about the justness of society’s own goals, which outline the goals in conflict, indicate their crucial importance, and provide their justification and rationale. In addition, they negate and delegitimize the goals of the other group. These societal beliefs motivate society members to struggle and fight for these goals, and help them endure and bear the losses, stress, and costs of the intractable conflict.

  2. (2) Societal beliefs about security, which refer to the importance of personal safety and national survival, and outline the conditions for their achievement. In the context of intractable conflict, beliefs about maintenance of security in its widest terms, including military mobilization, volunteerism, and heroism are of special importance (see, for example, Bar-Tal, Jacobson, & Klieman, 1998). These beliefs are essential when the intractable conflict involves violence in the form of acts of hostility and wars and poses threats to the life of individuals, collective existence, economic well-being, and even to central values.

  3. (3) Societal beliefs of positive collective self-image, which concern the ethnocentric tendency to attribute positive traits, values, and behavior to the in-group own society. In times of intractable conflict characteristics related to courage, heroism, or endurance; and, on the other hand, characteristics related to humaneness, morality, fairness, trustworthiness, and progress are propagated with special intensity. The enemy is presented in stark contrast allowing for a clear differentiation between the two parties (Sande, Goethals, Ferrari, & Worth, 1989). Moreover, these beliefs supply moral strength and a sense of the society members own superiority.

  4. (4) Societal beliefs of the society members own victimization, which concern self-presentation as a victim, especially in the context of the intractable conflict (Bar-Tal et al., 2009; Mack, 1990; Volkan, 1997; Vollhardt, 2012). The focus of these beliefs is on the unjust harm, evil deeds, and atrocities perpetrated by the adversary. They provide the moral incentive to seek justice and oppose the opponent, as well as to mobilizing moral, political, and material support from the international community.

  5. (5) Societal beliefs of delegitimizing the opponent, which concern beliefs that deny the adversary’s humanity (Bar-Tal & Hammack, 2012; Bar-Tal & Teichman, 2005; Holt & Silverstein, 1989; Rieber, 1991). Through dehumanization, extreme negative trait characterization, outcasting, use of negative political labels, and negative group comparisons, a society excludes the opponent from the sphere of human groups (Bar-Tal, 1989, 1990; Bar-Tal & Hammack, 2012). These beliefs serve as psychological authorization and justification to harm the rival group, and also explain the causes of the conflict’s outbreak, its continuation, and the violence of the opponent.

  6. (6) Societal beliefs of patriotism, which generate attachment to the country and society, by propagating loyalty, love, care, and sacrifice (Bar-Tal, 1993; Bar-Tal & Staub, 1997; Somerville, 1981). Patriotic beliefs increase social cohesiveness and dedication, and serve an important function for mobilizing the society members to active participation in the conflict and endurance of hardship and difficulties, to the point of sacrificing their life for the society.

  7. (7) Societal beliefs of unity, which refer to the importance of ignoring internal conflicts and disagreements during intractable conflict in order to unite the forces in the face of the external threat. These beliefs strengthen the society from within, develop a consensus and a sense of belonging, increase solidarity, and allow directing society’s forces and energy to coping with the enemy.

  8. (8) Finally, societal beliefs about peace, which refer to peace as the ultimate desire of the society. These beliefs present peace as an ultimate goal of the society in an idyllic, utopic, and amorphous way, and society members as peace loving. Such beliefs have the role of inspiring optimism. They also strengthen positive self-image and positive self-presentation to the outside world.

Collective Emotional Orientation

In addition to societal beliefs that comprise collective memory and ethos of conflict, the socio-psychological infrastructure includes collective emotional orientation. Societies may develop characteristic collective emotional orientations, with an emphasis on one, or a number of, particular emotions (Barbalet, 1998; Bar-Tal, 2001; Halperin, 2017; Halperin, Sharvit, & Gross, 2011; Jarymowicz & Bar-Tal, 2006; Mackie & Smith, 2002). Their expression is not only carried on the individual level but also in various channels of communication, institutions, and products. It means that collective emotional orientation refers to societal characterization of an emotion that is reflected on an individual and collective level in psychological repertoire, as well as in tangible and intangible societal symbols such as cultural products or ceremonies (see also Bar-Tal, Halperin, & de Rivera, 2007). Societies involved in intractable conflict tend to be dominated by a number of collective emotional orientations (see also, for example, Halperin, 2008, 2017; Petersen, 2002; Scheff, 1994). The most notable is the collective orientation of fear, but in addition, they may be dominated by hatred and anger, as well as guilt or pride.

Functions of the Socio-Psychological Infrastructure

The above socio-psychological infrastructure (i.e., collective memory, ethos of conflict, and collective emotional orientations) fulfills important functions on both the individual and collective levels for societies involved in intractable conflicts, especially during their climatic and irreconcilable phase. In general, it helps to meet the challenges that intractable conflict poses as it helps to satisfy society members’ deprived needs, facilitates coping with stress, and is functional to withstanding the enemy.

Specifically, this socio-psychological infrastructure fulfills at least six important functions. First, especially the narratives of collective memory and of ethos of conflict, fulfills the epistemic function of illuminating the conflict situation. The situation of intractable conflict is extremely threatening and accompanied by stress, vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear. In view of ambiguity and unpredictability, individuals must satisfy the need for a comprehensive understanding of the conflict, which provides a coherent and predictable picture of the situation (e.g., Burton, 1990). Furthermore, the narratives of collective memory and ethos of conflict are functional for coping with stress created by the conditions of intractable conflict, as they provide meaning to the conflict, and allow “sense-making” of the harsh reality. In fact, certain contents of these narratives, such as well-defined goals, positive self-collective view, recognition of being a victim, and seeing difficult conditions as a challenge to be overcome with patriotism and unity, are especially functional for coping with the stressful conditions of intractable conflict.

Second, in its moral function, the socio-psychological infrastructure serves to justify violent acts of the in-group toward the enemy, including killings and destruction (see, for example, Apter, 1997; Jost & Major, 2001). It allows justification for group members to carry out misdeeds, perform intentional harm, and institutionalize aggression toward the enemy. This is an important function that resolves feelings of dissonance, guilt, and shame for group members. Human beings do not usually willingly harm other humans. The sanctity of life is perhaps the most sacred value in modern societies. Killing or even hurting other human beings is considered the most serious violation of the moral code. However, in intractable conflict, groups hurt each other most grievously, even resorting to atrocities, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The socio-psychological repertoire allows this violence. It justifies and legitimizes the most immoral acts and allows the attribution of one’s own immoral behavior to external-situational factors.

Third, the socio-psychological infrastructure creates a sense of differentiation and superiority (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). It sharpens intergroup differences because it describes the opponent in delegitimizing terms and at the same time glorifies and praises the in-group own society, as well as present it as a sole victim of the conflict. The repertoire focuses on the violence, atrocities, cruelty, lack of concern for human life, and viciousness of the other side. This stands in contrast to the theme of positive collective self-image, which portrays the in-group in positive terms. Moreover, since societies involved in intractable conflict view their own goals as justified and perceive themselves in a positive light, they attribute all responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict and its continuation to the opponent. Being accompanied by strong emotions, this differentiation allows positive self-collective esteem and feelings of superiority, which are of special importance in the situation of intractable conflict when both sides engage in violence, often performing immoral acts (Sandole, 1999).

Fourth, the socio-psychological infrastructure prepares the society to be ready for threatening and violent acts of the enemy, as well as for difficult life conditions. The narratives of collective memory and ethos, together with the collective emotional orientations, direct the society to information that signals potential harm and continuing violent confrontations, allowing psychological preparations for the lasting conflict and immunization against negative experiences. The society is attentive and sensitive to cues about threats so no sudden surprises can arise. Human beings need to live in a world whose future can, to some extent, be predicted so that they can feel some degree of mastery over their fate. Themes such as the opponent’s delegitimization; sense of their own victimhood and insecurity; as well as fear, hatred, and anger, serve as a basis for expectations of negative events, for perceptual tuning to and preparation for the challenges of conflict.

Fifth, the socio-psychological infrastructure has the function of motivating for solidarity, mobilization, and action (Bar-Tal & Staub, 1997). The ethos of conflict implies threat to the society’s well-being and even to its survival. It raises the security needs as a core value and indicates a situation of emergency that requires uniting the societal forces. Solidarity and unity are crucial for muting the threat. Moreover, by justifying the goals of the conflict and focusing on delegitimization and the intransigence and violence of the opponent, as well as on collective self-victimhood, fear, hatred, and anger, the repertoire implies the necessity to exert all the efforts and resources of the group in the struggle against the enemy. It plays a central role in stirring up patriotism, which leads to readiness for various sacrifices in order to defend the group and the country and avenge acts of past violence by the enemy. Without building patriotism it is impossible to manage violent conflict.

Last, but not least, the described narratives of collective memory and ethos fulfill the unique role of contributing to the formation, maintenance, and strengthening of a social identity that reflects the lasting conditions and experiences of intractable conflict. Intractable conflicts greatly affect the nature, contents, and functioning of social identity (Ashmore, Jussim, & Wilder, 2001; Cash; 1996; Oren & Bar-Tal, 2014; Ross, 2001; Worchel, 1999). In this situation, society members tend to increase their sense of identification with the society in order to fulfill their need of belonging and security. In fact, social identity in times of intractable conflict supplies strength to society members, as their sense of common fate and belonging increases. Moreover, enhanced social identity provides the basis for the unity, solidarity, and coordination needed to cope with the conflict condition. Strong social identity is one of the forces that facilitate society members’ mobilization for the conflict, with a readiness to make even extreme sacrifices.

Furthermore, in the context of intractable conflict, the evolved socio-psychological infrastructure that dominates the society throughout the long years eventually shapes the nature of social identity; that is, especially societal beliefs of ethos of conflict and collective memory offer contents that imbue social identity with meaning (Barthel, 1996; Cairns, Lewis, Mumcu, & Waddell, 1998; Gillis, 1994; Oren, Bar-Tal, & David, 2004). These are expressed in language, societal ceremonies, symbols, myths, commemorations, holidays, canonic texts, and so on. In fact, strong identification with the society is related to the acceptance of major shared beliefs that comprise the socio-psychological infrastructure. As a result, when social identity is dominated by meanings that provide ethos of conflict and collective memory, this supports the continuation of the conflict (Liu & Hilton, 2005; Oren & Bar-Tal, 2014).

Evolvement of Culture of Conflict

On the basis of the described socio-psychological infrastructure, societies involved in intractable conflict form a stable view of the violent, while the continuous stream of negative information and experiences validate and reinforce it. This conflict-supporting repertoire is thus individually stored, frozen, and continuously accessible. Since most of the members of the society in intractable conflict are involved with it (actively or passively, directly or indirectly), as proposed, this repertoire is often widely shared and spreads within the societal institutions and channels of communication.

In view of these processes, societies that live under prolonged experiences of intractable conflict—with the dominant socio-psychological infrastructure—gradually evolve a culture of conflict. A culture of conflict develops when societies saliently integrate into their culture tangible and intangible symbols that are created to communicate a particular meaning about the prolonged and continuous experiences of living in the context of conflict (Geertz, 1993; Ross, 1998). Symbols of conflict become hegemonic elements in the culture of societies involved in intractable conflict: They provide a dominant meaning about the present reality, about the past, and about future goals, and serve as guides for practice (Bar-Tal, 2010).

In societies with culture of conflict, the described socio-psychological infrastructure is not only widely shared but also appears to be dominant in public discourse via societal channels of communication. Moreover, it is often used for justification and explanation of decisions, policies, and courses of actions taken by the leaders. It is also expressed in institutional ceremonies, commemorations, memorials, and so on. In addition socio-psychological infrastructure is expressed in cultural products such as literature, TV programs, films, theater plays, visual arts, monuments, etc. It becomes a society’s cultural repertoire, relaying societal views and shaping society members’ beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. Through these channels it can be widely disseminated and can reach every sector of the society. Finally the socio-psychological infrastructure appears in the school textbooks, is used by teachers and by schools, and appears prominently even in higher education. This element is of special importance because the beliefs presented in the educational textbooks reach the entire younger generation.

Characteristics of the Culture of Conflict

Culture of conflict has the following characteristics. First, the described eight themes, which are part of the ethos of conflict and appear in the narrative of collective memory of the conflict, serve as an organizing framework to view the past, present, and future. Second, one theme that receives particular significance in the culture of conflict and therefore needs a specific note is glorification of violence. It praises the personnel, organizations, and the institutions that carry the violence. Third, each society has particular contents that fill out the general themes with narratives that concern all its specific symbols including experiences, history, conditions, events, individuals, myths, and so on (see, for example, Bar-Tal, 2007b).

Fourth, culture of conflict evolves through a long process that takes years and decades. It takes time to construct the symbols and institutionalize them via processes of dissemination and socialization until they become dominant parts of the culture that is shared by at least the majority of society members. Fifth, the specific symbols of the culture of conflict (e.g., sacrifice) are expressed through different content (e.g., stories about heroes, old myths, aspirations, prescriptions, stories about events). This means that the same symbols appear and reappear in different narratives. Sixth, the contents of culture of conflict are expressed through different societal modes and cultural products including ceremonies, speeches, art, etc. That is, various institutions and channels take an active part in the dissemination of the contents among society members and their socialization.

Seventh, symbols of the conflict and of the culture of conflict become routinized into everyday life experiences. In other words, society members experience in their daily life various symbols of the conflict, which become part and parcels of their daily life (Bar-Tal, Abutbul, & Raviv, 2014). Finally, the culture of conflict changes in accordance with experiences that the society goes through and the changing context in which society members live. The changes are usually gradual because culture does not change overnight. It is possible that in societies involved in intractable conflict will slowly emerge an alternative culture with symbols propagating peace (Bar-Tal, 2013).

On one hand, societal communications and cultural products reflect the beliefs, attitudes, and emotions experienced by the members of the society. At the same time, they also transmit, disseminate, and validate them. The younger generation is exposed to this infrastructure through family, educational institutions, and through the societal channels of communication, including the mass media. By adulthood, many members share the same beliefs, attitudes, values, and emotions. Eventually, the acquisition of, and participation in, this socio-psychological infrastructure becomes an important indicator of membership in and identification with the society.

Noteworthy, that culture of conflict is characterized by symbols that are based on the eight themes that maintain the conflict and support its continuation. All these themes serve the same function of facilitating adaptation to the conflict context and creating the psychological conditions that allow a society to live under the conditions of conflict with meaning, predictability, and resilience. They all contribute to the same orientation of fueling the ongoing intractable conflict, suggesting that the goals of the conflict are just and essential for the societal life; that the rival is vicious and out of the boundaries of normative groups, in contrast to the in-group, which is the victim and is characterized by virtues. Therefore, the beliefs focus on the conditions needed for full mobilization of society members not only to support the conflict but also to actively take part in it, willing to go as far as sacrificing their lives. In their essence, these themes that appear in the narratives of collective memory and ethos of conflict can be seen as a general conservative ideological system related to the context of conflict (Bar-Tal, Sharvit, Halperin, & Zafran, 2012).

This system being also grounded in shared emotions provides a very simplistic and one-sided picture that serve as a prism for viewing conflict reality. It supplies of information, symbols, and knowledge that confirm and validate the hegemonic themes of the culture of conflict. It leads to selective, biased, and distorted information processing by society members, which perpetuates and eternalizes its hegemonic themes and symbols. Thus the system with the themes and symbols is consolidated, perseveres, and endures even in the face of contradictory information.

Considering that these processes involve the two parties of the conflict simultaneously, it is obvious how the vicious cycle of intractable conflict operates. Once it enters the path of intractability, and as the conflict evolves, it moves on the course of continuing hostility, violence, and animosity, which acts as a perpetuum mobile. Each side establishes a conflict-supportive socio-psychological infrastructure and develops a culture of conflict that fulfills important functional roles on both the individual and collective levels. In time, however, these elements come to serve as major motivating, justifying, and rationalizing factors of the conflict that feed its continuation and serve as a very powerful barrier to peaceful resolution of the conflict. The parties involved in intractable conflict thus continue the confrontation for many decades, until, in some cases, intractability eventually is overturned—that is, either one side decisively wins, whether militarily or politically, or both sides decide to resolve it peacefully.

Embarking on the Road of Peacemaking

The described socio-psychological dynamics of intractable conflict make it clear that these harsh conflicts pose an enormous challenge for the societies involved to resolve them peacefully. It requires changing the socio-psychological infrastructure that is well institutionalized and disseminated during the conflict, and which underlies the culture of conflict that dominates societies engaged in such conflicts. Yet, although it is a very challenging endeavor in all aspects, the process of resolving intractable conflicts is not unimaginable.

Embarking on the road of peacemaking often begins when a number of society members begin to think that the conflict should be resolved peacefully, and start acting to realize this idea. Once this idea emerges and is propagated by society members, a process of moving society toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict begins (Bar-Tal, 2013). In essence, in cases of protracted and violent conflicts, it is a long process of societal change of building a new socio-psychological repertoire that allows reaching an agreement with the past rival, which then may continue in constructing a new ethos that serves as a foundation in the emerging culture of peace.

This process is gradual and complex, and also not necessarily linear, since societal changes are not a simple matter; ideologies, cultures and identity-related beliefs are well entrenched in the society and powerful forces guarding them will not change easily. It may take years and even decades. However, if successful, the past rival sides may reconcile and reach peaceful relations between them.

The Process of Peacemaking

Peacemaking focuses on the societal acts toward mitigating the conflict and eventually reaching an official settlement, which is a formal agreement between the rival sides to end the confrontation (see Zartman, 2007). These latter micro-level processes include concreate mechanisms and methods such as negotiation, bargaining, mediation, and arbitration, which are beyond the scope of the present analysis (see for these processes, for example, Bercovitch & Houston, 1996; Druckman, 2001; Pruitt, 2011; Pruitt & Carnevale, 1993). However, the essence of peacemaking is psychological since it requires changing the societal repertoire that fueled the conflict into a new one that is in line with the new goal of resolving the conflict peacefully.

In fact, in the last decades it has become evident that formal peace agreements fall far short of establishing genuine peaceful relations between the former adversaries (e.g., Knox & Quirk, 2000; Lederach, 1997). As the result, formal resolutions of conflicts may be unstable and may collapse, as was the case in Chechnya following the first war, or they may result in a cold peace, as is the case in Israeli–Egyptian relations. In these and similar cases, hopes of turning the conflictive relations of the past into peaceful societal relations have not materialized because the peace-building process with reconciliation either never actually began, was stalled, or has progressed very slowly. Formal conflict resolution sometimes abides mostly leaders, who negotiated the agreement, or narrow strata around them, or a small part of the society only. In these cases, the majority of society members may not accept the negotiated compromises, or even if they do, they may still hold worldview that has fueled the conflict not allowing for stable peace to develop, supporting maintenance of cold peace only that is often based on an instrumental basis serving interests of the parties.

Thus, beyond the leaders who negotiate conflict resolution and sign the peaceful settlement, in order to pave the road to the settlement of the conflict, in many of the cases new societal beliefs and new narratives have to be constructed, disseminated, and accepted by society members who need to support the negotiated peaceful settlement. The new repertoire should include ideas about the need to resolve the conflict peacefully; about personalization and legitimization of the rival; changing views of the conflict as being of “zero-sum nature” and unsolvable; changing goals that supported the conflict and accepting compromises; building trust; and constructing beliefs that the agreement can be implemented, developing goals about new peaceful relation with the rival and eventually even recognition in the need to reconcile and construction of new climate that promotes the above presented new ideas about peacemaking and building (Bar-Tal, 2013; Gawerc, 2006).

In addition, on the behavioral level, there is a need to decrease considerably and even cease violence, initiate compromises, and formulate optional solutions for conflict resolution that could be accepted by the other side, initiate people-to-people programs, and develop cooperative projects. Thus in fact, all these changes are required in order to move society from what was known thus far, well established in the minds of society members and well-practiced for many years, to new ideas that portray unknown, uncertain, and an unpredictable future that is dependent on a delegitimized rival.

This process may evolve and develop when at least a minority observes the heavy price that the society has paid for the continuation of the conflict, or that the costs of settling the conflict at present are lower that the costs that will paid in the future; when they identify cues that the rival is ready to compromise with its goals and move on the path of peacemaking; when the geopolitical context changes and the party finds itself in a disadvantage; or when a powerful third party is pressing for the peaceful solution.

Phases of Peacemaking

In many cases it is possible to identify three main phases in the process of peacemaking, which consist of gradual mobilization of society members for their support of peaceful settlement of the conflict (Bar-Tal, 2013). The first phase, which often begins when the conflict is still going, involves a process of emergence of an alternative socio-psychological repertoire supporting peacemaking. The phase of emergence usually begins with sporadic ideas by “early risers” about the need to resolve the conflict peacefully (Tarrow, 1998).

This process begins on the individual level, then leads to the formation of a group of society members who think similarly and begin the long journey of peacemaking. However, those individuals and groups who begin to question foundations of ethos of conflict are often viewed by the great majority of the society members and the authorities at best as naïve and detached from reality, but more often as subversive and dangerous to the goals of winning the conflict. The message at this early stage of the process of peacemaking refers often to the general idea of the need to stop the conflict and embark on the process of peacemaking that will eventually lead to its peaceful settlement.

The second phase involves legitimization of an alternative socio-psychological repertoire supporting peacemaking, which provides a firm basis for the peacemaking process (Bar-Siman-Tov, 1994). In this phase the minority group(s) moves to a position where the ideas about peacemaking become accepted as part of the legitimate public discourse, and the messages that were viewed very negatively begin to contest the hegemonic conflict-supporting repertoire. Moreover, “late comers” now join the minority group that may take a form of a peace movement with few peace organizations, which at this stage is recognized as a legitimate part of the social and political system.

Often in this phase appear specific proposals that detail the plan of peaceful settling of the conflict. In addition, in this phase the messages may be extended to the evolvement of an alternative narrative that not only refers to the future goals and aspiration, but also to a more balanced view in describing the course of the conflict and a more humane view of the rival as well as a more critical presentation of the in-group.

The last phase requires its institutionalization. In this phase the alternative beliefs supporting peacemaking penetrate societal institutions and channels of communication such as formal political system, educational system, cultural products, and mass media. At this phase, also, formal leaders may express their support for the idea of peacemaking and political parties that advocate in their platform peaceful settlement of the conflict may appear. The peace organizations institutionalize and their actions become part of the normative activities of civil society. In addition, an alternative narrative that contains beliefs that contradict ethos of conflict and serve as seeds for building ethos of peace becomes well established.

As a result of all these, the competition between opposing camps in the society with regard to peacemaking—one supports continuation of the conflict and the other propagates its peaceful termination—becomes central and often very intense and sometimes even accompanied by violence. The phase of institutionalization, then, is a very crucial one. It is only when the alternative socio-psychological repertoire supporting peacemaking evolves to be institutionalized, dominant, and even hegemonic, then the road to peace is opened in its significant meaning. However, it does not always ends with a peaceful settlement of the conflict as it may regress and lead to the re-escalation of the conflict as show the conflicts in Sri Lanka and in the Middle East.

Challenges of Peacemaking

No doubt that the period of peacemaking is very challenging for the societies involved. The new evolving repertoire suggests building a new future that cannot be guaranteed, that is based on invalidated assumptions, that negates the pillars of the still-dominant ethos of conflict. It is thus not surprising that many members of the society have difficulty to adapt to the new emerging situation. They still live with the old images and at the same time are encouraged to accept new beliefs. Even when they are ready to support the peace process, they still feel that they cannot abandon completely the repertoire that has been so functional during the climax of the intractable conflict, allowed them to cope with its challenges and still may be needed in the future.

The psychological roots of conflict are not easily eliminated, and the narratives of collective memory of the conflict and ethos of conflict are still well organized in the memory system and are automatically activated when threats, real or symbolic, are perceived. Moreover, often there are spoilers that make every effort to stop the process using various tactics of persuasion and even incitement. These include groups on the rival side that propagate continuation of the conflict, as well as groups within the in-group that object vehemently to the peace process.

The orientation for peace needs, hence, not only to inhibit the automatic activation of thoughts associated with conflict, but also to replace them with a new system of beliefs. That is, changing the conflict-supportive socio-psychological beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and patterns of behavior within the culture of conflict with socio-psychological elements that include new views of the rival, trust, hope, some degree of perspective taking, and guilt. These new beliefs must be attended, comprehended, accepted, and practiced, before they can serve as an alternative to the automatically activated repertoire of conflict.

Conditions for Successful Peacemaking

In most of the cases, peacemaking involves, on the one hand, bottom-up processes in which groups, grass roots, and civil society members support the ideas of peace-building and act to disseminate them also among leaders. On the other hand, it needs top-down processes in which emerging leaders join efforts or initiate the peacemaking process including persuasion of the society members in the necessity of peaceful settlement of the conflict and carry it out.

Peacemaking process must get also support from the elites and institutions of the society and eventually must be shared by at least a substantial portion of society, especially in democratic societies (see, for example, Bar-Siman-Tov, 1994; Knox & Quirk, 2000; Weiner, 1998). Of special importance is the role of the mass media and other societal channels of communication and institutions that can first buttress the formation of peace orientation, and next transmit and disseminate the new system of beliefs among the society members. The presentation of new beliefs that provide the goals, plans, information, images, considerations, arguments, and justifications for peace-building subscribes to the principles of persuasion. These new beliefs should form a new prism for understanding the reality and processing new information.

Some scholars of conflict resolution argue that the success of peacemaking process and then of conflict resolution is dependent on specific conditions that turn the conflict to be ripe. For example, Zartman (2000, pp. 228–229) proposed that “If the (two) parties to a conflict (a) perceive themselves to be in a hurting stalemate and (b) perceive the possibility of a negotiated solution (a way out), the conflict is ripe for resolution (i.e., for negotiations toward resolution to begin).” Pruitt (2007) offers a psychological perspective on ripeness theory, testing it with the analysis of the Northern Ireland case. In his view ripeness reflects each party’s readiness to enter and stay engaged in negotiations. Antecedents of readiness include motivation to escape the situation together with optimism about the prospect of reaching a mutually beneficial outcome. When readiness is present, a subtle conciliatory signal may be offered. If the other party reciprocates, optimism ought to increase on both sides. We would like to argue that reaching this stage is not a natural process, but a result of continuous and consistent persuasion by those who begin to lead the moves of peacemaking. In other words, individuals and groups are the ones who advocate and propagate the process of peacemaking. They grasp the new ideas, adhere to them, and disseminate them among society members, trying to mobilize them for the cause.

To succeed, then, the process of peacemaking process depends on factors such as availability and free flow of new alternative information about the conflict, peacemaking, and the rival; the confidence and centrality with which the society holds its ethos of conflict; responsiveness of the enemy to the changes with corresponding lines of behavior that signal peacemaking; determination of the leaders to pursue the new goals of peacemaking; standing of the leaders who lead the peace process (their charisma, well-constructed rational); active support of the peace process by the involved societies (entrepreneurs, members, media); low strength of the spoilers; significant reduction or elimination of violence; and of special importance is satisfaction of the basic needs of the societies involved.

Indeed, sometimes this process ends with peaceful settlement of the conflict that is a result of conflict resolution. Conflict resolution refers to the negotiation process, in all its phases and tracks, which takes place between representatives of the rival parties to reach formal, peaceful settlement of the conflict. This process concerns many different issues that have to be settled, and is often well discussed in the literature (see, for example, De Dreu, 2010; Pruitt, 2011; Reykowski & Cisłak, 2011; Wallensteen, 2002). Nevertheless, peaceful settlement of the conflict does not have a unitary meaning. Once achieved, peace can take many different forms ranging from cold peace that indicates lack of violent acts and minimal relations up to warm peace that is geared toward major transformation of building completely new peaceful relations (see the difference between negative and positive peace by Galtung, 1969).

Cold Peace vs. Stable and Lasting Peace

Cold peace takes place when states adhere to the signed agreements of peaceful resolution of their vicious conflict, but do not continue to build stable and lasting peaceful relations between society members as in the case of the relations between Egypt and Israel. It is often founded on an instrumental basis serving the interests of the parties as a simple cost-benefit analysis, and is maintained as long as the benefits of maintaining the peaceful relationship outweigh the costs of violating the agreement between the parties. These relations are often supported by leaders, economic elites, and certain segments of society that view their interest in maintaining peaceful relations that may last for a long period of time. However, they lack the development of amiable and cordial relations between the two societies, whose members still hold the worldview that has supported and fueled the conflict, thus not allowing stable peace to develop.

As a result, formal resolution of the conflict can be unstable and may collapse, or be maintained with much uncertainty and limitations. In these cases, hopes of turning the conflictive relations of the past into stable and lasting peaceful societal relations do not materialize because the societies do not restructure their relationships by building stable and lasting peace with complete transformation of the socio-psychological repertoire of the societies involved (see Clements, 2012; Lederach, 2005).

Stable and lasting peace is based on fully nonviolent; normalized; and cooperative political, economic, and cultural relations as in the case of France and Germany. It consists of mutual recognition and acceptance of an invested supreme goal to maintain peaceful relations that provide secure and trustful coexistence. This type of relations can only be successful when they are constructed within the frame of a culture of peace that both societies construct. Building stable and lasting peaceful relations is thus a major societal change that involves all aspects of individual and collective life and requires both societal-structural and psychological change. The essence of this process is changing the socio-psychological repertoire of the majority of society members and constructing a new culture of peace to allow transforming the nature of the relations between former rival parties into stable and lasting peaceful relations.

Establishment of a Culture of Peace

Real peace is not only about a political process; it is also a way of life reflected in the perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals and nations alike. Establishing stable and lasting peace based on fully nonviolent, normalized, and cooperative political, economic, and cultural relations between the parties, which provide secure and trustful coexistence and consists of mutual recognition and acceptance, can only be achieved when constructed within the frame of culture of peace that both societies adopt. Peace culture can be seen as “a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior and ways of life that reject violence and prevents conflicts by tackling their roots causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations” (UN Resolutions A/RES/52/13-UNESCO, 1995).

In the context of intergroup relations, this is a culture in which individuals, groups, and nations have cooperative relations with one another and manage their inevitable conflicts constructively. It is based on mutual trust, values of justice, respect of human rights, sensitivity, and consideration of the other party’s needs, interests and goals, equality of relations, acceptance, and respect of cultural differences. Above all it requires recognition of the superiority and importance of peace as a value, goal, and practice (see also Brenes & Weseels, 2001; de Rivera, 2004, 2009; Fernández-Dols, Hurtado-de-Mendoza, & Jiménez-de-Lucas, 2004).

Culture of peace evolves slowly through time in view of the lasting and meaningful experiences of the society. To support this process, of special importance is establishing continuous peace education that can socialize the young generation into the culture of peace, as well as developing civil society that promotes and carries people-to-people and dialogue projects. In addition, mass media has an important role in maintaining peace, as well as various cultural channels. Eventually, when the process is successful, culture of peace is shared by society members who were involved in conflict and it provides new meaning about the reality of the society and the world in general. Moreover, it supplies the rules for practice, which is a crucial element that serves as a safeguard of peace.

When society members, at least the great majority, internalize the values, beliefs, attitudes, norms, and practices of culture of peace it is possible to characterize the society as being peaceful. Subsequently, its collective identity is imprinted by this characteristic. Construction of culture of peace is an ultimate achievement of societies that engaged in intractable conflict through many years. It is a very long process, as all major societal changes, and in some respect, it sometimes remains a desired culture by those who cherish its values and nature.


The described framework of the foundations and dynamics of intractable conflicts suggests that peacemaking is in essence a socio-psychological endeavor, achieved through a socio-psychological process of societal and cultural change. This state of collective mind, though, cannot come as a result of persuasion, indoctrination, and propaganda, but from deep tangible and observable changes that touch on the individual and collective lives.

Mere psychological basis cannot hold for a long time. Society members have to experience the concrete changes that serve as a basis for their change of the socio-psychological repertoire. Thus there is need in lines of actions, practices, restructures, and changes in the political, legal, societal, cultural, and economic domains. The changes range from acts that provide transitional justice to redistribution of wealth accumulated unjustly by one side. People have to perform acts that provide these new experiences, such as peaceful gestures, meetings, joint projects, exchanges, apologies, carry justice, change the inequalities, introduce peace education into the system, and so on.

Moreover, the peacemaking process requires not only persuading the members of one’s own group, but also convincing the rival side of one’s sincere intentions and goals to build genuine peaceful relations. These acts supply in the best way the validating information that enables group members to look at their social world differently. On the basis of the concrete changes, socio-psychological change takes place that is the basis for establishment of stable and lasting peaceful relations.

The process of changing the culture of conflict into a culture of peace may last decades, and sometime it fails. Formal resolutions of conflicts may be unstable and may collapse, as was the case in Chechnya following the first war; or they may result in a cold peace, as is the case in Israeli–Egyptian relations. Yet striving toward lasting and stable peace should not be a dream or a wish, but a continuous struggle to mobilize peace supporters, which leads to the signing of a peace agreement and eventually to the development of a culture of peace (see Bar-Tal, 2009, 2013).

The assassinated Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin, who was the architect of such desired process, said when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for this achievement in 1994: “We will pursue the course of peace with determination and fortitude. We will not let up. We will not give in. Peace will triumph over all its enemies, because the alternative is grimmer for us all. And we will prevail. We will prevail because we regard the building of peace as a great blessing for us, for our children after us.”

This message should be propagated and remembered!


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(1.) This idea is based on conceptual and empirical literature that suggests that successful coping with threatening and stressful conditions requires construction of a meaningful world view (e.g., Antonovsky, 1987; Frankl, 1963; Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Taylor, 1983).

(2.) Societal beliefs are cognitions shared by society members on topics and issues that are of special concern for their society and contribute to their sense of uniqueness (Bar-Tal, 2000).

(3.) Collective narratives are defined as “social constructions that coherently interrelate a sequence of historical and current events; they are accounts of a community’s collective experiences, embodied in its belief system and represent the collective’s symbolically constructed shared identity” (Bruner, 1990, p. 76).

(4.) Ethos is defined as “the configuration of central shared societal beliefs that provide a particular dominant orientation to a society at present and for the future” (Bar-Tal, 2000). It supplies the epistemic basis for the hegemonic social consciousness of the society and serves as one of the foundations of societal life. It binds the members of society together, connects between the present and the goals and aspirations that impel them toward the future, and gives meaning to the societal life (see, for example, McClosky & Zaller, 1984, who analyze beliefs about democracy and capitalism in the U.S. ethos).