A Clash of Mentalities

Israelis, Palestinians and Their Weird, Unique Legacies

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Israelis and Palestinians have mentalities toward the other that are both weird and unique, wildly out of sync with reality, and equidistant from the norm for parties to a conflict. Given their relative strengths, Israeli and Palestinian positions reverse what one expects; Israel should be demanding, Palestinians pleading. One can debate long into the night which of them is the more absurdly inappropriate. Their origins go back nearly 1½ centuries.

History. At the very start of the Zionist enterprise in the 1880s, the two parties to what is now called the Palestinian-Israeli conflict developed distinctive, diametrically opposed, and enduring attitudes toward each other.

Origins. Zionists, from a position of weakness, making up a minute portion of Palestine’s population, adopted conciliation, a wary attempt to find mutual interests with Palestinians and establish good relations with them, with an emphasis on bringing them economic benefits. Symbolic of this mentality, Israel is the world’s only country created not through conquest but via the purchase of land. David Ben-Gurion eventually turned conciliation into communal policy and major Israeli figures such as Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres continued with variants of it.

Palestinians, from a position of demographic strength and usually with great power patronage, adopted rejectionism, a resistance to all things Jewish and Zionist. Evoking the spirit of Muslim supremacy, under the guidance of Amin al-Husseini, it became more extreme with time, indeed genocidal and even suicidal. Just as Zionism celebrated the land in which Palestinians resided as unique and sacred, rejectionism followed suit, insisting on the uniqueness and sacredness of that land to them via Islamic Zionism. Major Palestinian figures, such as Yasir Arafat and Hamas leaders, continued with variants of this ideology.

These twin mentalities took shape early and then, as is commonly the case, persisted. As American geographer Wilbur Zelinsky explains: “Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area.” In simple language: First inhabitants tend to set cultural parameters that last for very long periods. [1] Technically, Zionists did not dislodge Palestinians, for they invariably purchased their city plots or farms, but practically they did, for traditional rural practice allowed common usage of grazing lands and water resources that their European outlook rejected, stirring resentment and leading to armed clashes.

Varying ideologies, objectives, tactics, strategies, and actors meant details varied over the next 150 years, even as fundamentals remain remarkably in place, with the two sides pursuing static and opposite goals. Much has changed over time—wars and treaties come and go, the balance of power shifts, the Arab states retreat, Israel gains vastly more power, its public moves to the right—but rejectionism and conciliation remain basically unchanged. Zionists purchase land, Palestinians make selling it a capital offense. Zionists build, Palestinians destroy. Zionists ache for acceptance, Palestinians push delegitimization.

Abnormality. That conciliatory and rejectionist mentalities have lasted so long and changed so little makes them unique anywhere in the world, ever. In other cases, a spasm occurs that ends fairly quickly as circumstances change. Only in the Palestinian-Israeli theater do they persist.

Conciliation makes obvious sense when a weaker actor fends off a stronger one. It is more surprising and rarer when the stronger conciliates the weaker, though this does happen: Richard Nixon’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union and Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran offer two American examples, though they were relatively brief and highly contentious. In contrast, Israel persists with conciliation with minor debate.

Likewise, rejectionism: The genocidal fusillade against Israelis has lasted so long and stayed so constant that it feels normal. A brief genocidal campaign against a weak enemy, such as that carried out by ISIS, does happen. A protracted campaign against a stronger enemy is unheard of. A look at other Middle Eastern conflicts, also pitting Muslims against non-Muslims, establishes this.

Turks fight Greeks in Cyprus. Muslims fight Christians in Lebanon. They resemble the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in that both are unresolved long-standing problems, and both could re-ignite at any moment. But how they differ: Non-Muslims in Cyprus and Lebanon do not face persistent attacks by any means from stoning to missiles. Nor do they suffer from global hate-campaigns by politicians, international organizations, media corporations, and university professors.

The same applies to Armenians, victims of a genocide at the hands of Turks and Kurds from 1915 to 1923. Tensions still persist and flare up, especially in the fighting between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia. Again, these frictions in no way replicate those of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Where are the rounds of murder and global hate-campaigns? No television shows indoctrinate Turkish children to murder Armenians. Azerbaijani imams do not dilate on the glory of martyrdom. The conflicts involving these neighbors of Israel might be called normal, taking place within boundaries. They highlight the abnormality of Palestinian rejectionism.

Likewise, the Arab states’ war on Israel was normal. It began in 1948 and ended with their realization of defeat after 1973. With the rarest of exceptions, almost no conventional fighting after that has taken place, much less all-out war. The economic boycott hardly exists. Arab capitals do not issue blood-curdling statements. They do not sponsor jihadis crossing international borders or summer camps convincing children to throw away their lives.


Contemporary. Positions further hardened over time, leaving the two sides ever more frustrated.

Hardening. Palestinians realize the uniqueness of their perversion, take pride in it, and even sexualize it. Palestinian Authority TV responded to violence coming from Jenin with “Jenin is our beautiful bride, which perfumes herself daily with the scent of martyrdom.” Using the same metaphor, a Hamas newspaper published an article proclaiming: “The Palestinian joy has its own fragrance; it is completely different from every other kind of happiness.” What might the author be alluding to? The murder of Israelis, of course. This proves, the article continues,

that our Palestinian people is still brimming with life and that it is standing on the ladder of glory, as long as it can tear the roof off a bus, can stab a soldier, and can continue to run over a settler [with a car] and to fire point blank at a hostile vehicle in the street. Only a Palestinian can imagine the force of the happiness that these courageous acts evoke in our heart…. [The Palestinian] cannot hide his joy and delight at any brave operation…. The people go out into the public squares and the streets, cheer for Palestine, express their joy and delight at the operation, pass out sweets, embrace one another.

Not only has the passage of time not moderated rejectionism but, as statements like these show, it becomes more florid and extravagant than ever, celebrating the death of Israelis in a spiral of perversion.

Israel’s conciliation also grows more extreme. On conquering the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the security establishment sought to win Palestinian favor through good will and economic prosperity, a process that intensified with time, culminating in the Oslo Accords. Israel then urged funding for the PA and (until October 7) for Hamas. Nor is conciliation limited to governmental actions; when the February 2023 murder of two Israeli brothers in the West Bank town of Huwara led to violent retaliation by rightwing Israelis, 7,000 leftwing Israelis instantly responded with a donation to Huwara residents of about $300,000. The Israeli taxpayer provided more than $40,000 for the Tishreen Association to fund a celebration of Nakba Day, mourning the Arab states’ failure to snuff Israel out in 1948–1949. Hebrew University invited students from the “occupied Palestinian territories” to apply for scholarships. The Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium, a historic high school in Tel Aviv, invited Saleh Diab, an eastern Jerusalem resident convicted of attacking Jews for political reasons, to address its student body.

Frustration. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict consists of endless, wearisome rounds of violence and counter-violence, neither of which ever achieves its purpose. The Palestinians invariably begin the hostilities with an attack on Israelis or Jews, usually unarmed. Israel responds with retribution. The two sides reiterate a spiral of Palestinian aggression and Israeli punishment, going around and around, making no progress. Palestinians suffer from poverty and the pathologies of a radicalized society, including oppression by their own leaders. Israel is the only modern, democratic, and rich country that cannot protect itself from being regularly assaulted by its neighbors.

Palestinians can damage Israel through acts of violence and by spreading an anti-Zionist message, but they cannot prevent the Jewish state from ascending from one success to the next. Israel can punish Palestinians for their aggression, but it cannot quench the rejectionist spirit and its ever-more depraved expressions.


Errors. The two sides share a history of mutual bafflement, contrasting circumstances, and confusion.

Cross-purposes. Already in 1937, when Western clothing fashions were more modest than today, the British diplomat George Rendel observed how “Jewish hiking-parties with stout young women from Central Europe in exiguous tight shorts made an odd contrast to the then still more numerous native Arabs, glaring suspiciously at these strange invaders.” Eighty years later, an Israeli woman confides how she feels “undressed” every time she passes West Bank men or boys. Religious Muslims, author Gershom Gorenberg notes, “misread Zionism as religious messianism, just as secularist Zionists misread [Amin al-]Husseini as a secular nationalist.” Palestinians stream to greater religiosity as Israelis rush toward post-modernism. One struggles to break free of autocratic rule, the other self-imposes a stifling political correctness. One strains to find enough meat for his family, the other experiments with trendy vegan diets. One foresees itself obliterating the enemy people, the other pictures two peoples flourishing side by side.

On this last point: Palestinians mostly see the conflict as win-lose, Israelis as win-win. Strikingly, each Palestinian faction seeks to destroy its rival, but Israelis want them all to prosper. For years, the PA wanted to starve Gaza of resources and compel Hamas to give up, whereas the IDF protected Gaza’s civilians. In 2018, for example, the PA tried to block fuel deliveries to Gaza that senior Israeli defense officials had sought to arrange. Israeli journalist Yaakov Lappin explains the contrast in attitudes:

The Palestinian Authority—driven by a desire to punish Hamas for splitting off from it, and for maintaining its own, separate armed force—continues to place its own sanctions on Gaza. The PA has cut salaries to its personnel in Gaza, sought to reduce the electricity flow (and was pressured by Israel to reinstate electricity payments last month), reduced medical assistance, and generally put the squeeze on the whole of Gaza.

How different Israel:

Israel’s defense establishment has been taking steps to try and keep Gaza’s economy from collapsing. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers who deal with Gaza actively encourage the [Gaza] Strip’s business community to grow, increasing the number of permits for them to leave Gaza, and fostering Gazan exports. They also keep a close watch over the state of Gaza’s vital civilian infrastructure, in a bid to keep it running. Israel keeps a daily supply of a variety of goods, fuel, gas, medical equipment, food, and construction material flowing into the Strip.

Miscalculations. This gap leads to miscalculations. Conciliation baffles Palestinians, prompting conspiracy theories that twist something like Moshe Dayan’s generous vision of mutual economic harmony into Israeli ambition for economic hegemony. Conversely, Israelis ignore the enduring power of rejectionism and fallaciously project their own desire for the good life onto Palestinians. When a Hamas leader says, “We are a people that love death for the sake of God as much as our enemies love life,” and a PA religious figure echoes him with, “We love death like our enemies love life,” disbelieving Israelis cannot make sense of what they hear, so they tend to ignore such sentiments. Of course, if Palestinians prioritized the good life, they long ago would have settled into a comfortable synergy with Israel’s dynamic economy. Instead, they have repeatedly shown an exceptional, almost inhuman intergenerational readiness to sacrifice their welfare for the sake of damaging Israel.

This massive cross-cultural misunderstanding did much to undermine the Oslo Accords and subsequent diplomacy. Palestinians entered them with stagnant old ambitions to destroy Israel while Israelis entered with exciting new hopes for resolution. Palestinians wanted to harm Israel and assumed the converse as well; Israelis wanted close the conflict and assumed Palestinians cherished the same prospect; in fact, they wanted to end Israel itself.

Confusion. The fact that rejectionism is not temporary, does not bend to the pressure of carrots and sticks, and does not moderate over time explains the general inability to understand it or formulate a response to it. The mentality bewilders contemporaries as something hitherto unknown, a new phenomenon that prior experience cannot explain, like the French Revolution or Soviet Russia.

Shimon Peres exemplifies this incomprehension. Although a brilliant man who filled nearly all the Israeli state’s highest offices, someone who had a leading role in developing Israel’s nuclear capabilities, and who lived alongside rejectionism for eighty-two years, from his arrival in Mandatory Palestine at the age of eleven in 1934 until his death at the age of ninety-three in 2016, he failed to fathom this exceptional phenomenon. He thought it could be moderated, he assumed punishments would change behavior, and he expected goodwill to inspire reciprocity—none of which happened. His lapse in understanding led to a flamboyant ineptness.

The uniqueness of the two legacies confuses observers in various ways. First, they vainly try to stuff the two peoples into known categories. Palestinians are viewed as a colonized people, though they were no more conquered by Zionists than are Europeans at present by Muslims arriving as illegal migrants in the millions and hoping to become the majority population; both are non-belligerent large-scale immigrations. Israelis are routinely compared to imperialists, even though they moved in as civilians and created history’s only country through purchase, and did so in their ancestral homeland. Terms like imperialism and apartheid betray an incomprehension of two unique legacies.

Second, unusual behavior misleads observers. Rejectionism’s persistence convinces some of its truth: White-hot fury and willingness to suffer imply a morally justified cause. Surely no population can be so consistent, so angry, so fanatical for so long without good reason. Israeli efforts to document atrocities have limited impact. Contrarily, Israeli conciliation implies a sense of guilt; why else would a more powerful actor behave so timidly, symbolized by such astonishing acts of placation as trading 461 prisoners for one Israeli?

Third, would-be peacemakers attempt to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through conventional diplomatic means, which predictably fail. The Oslo Accords, for example, came between such breakthroughs as the ending of South Africa’s apartheid regime between 1990 and 1994, the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, and Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement of 1998; surely compromise would work here, too. In this spirit, US Presidents Clinton and Obama each separately dispatched George Mitchell to build on his diplomatic success in Ireland; of course, his Palestinian-Israeli efforts ended in total failure.

Resolution in this case requires either Palestinian acceptance of Israel or Israel’s destruction—not compromise. Martin Sherman correctly notes that, “We are talking about a clash of two collectives with competing and mutually exclusive narratives that are irreconcilable—and only one side can win.” This abnormal conflict cannot be ended through compromise. One side must win, the other must lose.

[1] For example, tiny seventeenth-century groups established distinct cultures along the east coast of North America that endure centuries later: the French in Acadia (1604), the Virginia Company in Jamestown (1607), the Pilgrims in Massachusetts (1620), the Dutch in New Amsterdam (1624), the English slavers in Charleston (1670), and the Quakers in Philadelphia (1682). On which, see Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Penguin, 2011.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum and author of Israel Victory: How Zionists Win Acceptance and Palestinians Get Liberated (Wicked Son, 2024).

Topic tags:
Israel Israeli Affairs Israel-Hamas War Palestinians