Aluf Benn
November 1, 2007 - 2:49pm

It is not easy to discuss the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in a practical manner, without past grudges. Too many emotions, historical memories and political interests are involved, turning every discussion of a solution to the conflict into a slogan contest: "diplomatic horizon," "partition of Jerusalem," "right of return."

Sometimes it pays to observe even events close to home from a distance, and to learn from the advice of others. Jeanne Brett and Lee Thompson, professors from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, study and teach how to conduct negotiations. The model they have developed is universal, and is supposed to suit any situation - from buying a house and finding a job to agreements between huge corporations and governments. The two have studied commercial negotiations and labor relations.

They have not taken an interest in the Oslo Accords or in Camp David, nor have they read the "road map," but their observations are also relevant to the discussions now being held by Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and Abu Ala, and explain some of the past failures.

In their opinion, the preferred approach to solving conflicts relies on finding and leveraging the interests of both parties. That enables give-and-take and increases the chances that the agreement will be implemented. This appeal to interests is preferable to using force - as Israel does in the case of the settlements and the checkpoints, and to demanding rights - as the Palestinians do, always bringing dust-covered UN resolutions to the negotiating table and making claims in the name of "international legitimacy." Even a discussion of interests sometimes has to slide over into a forcing of hands and demands in the name of justice, but it must not get stuck there.

According to the professors, a common mistake in negotiations - which always leads to a blow-up - is putting the "final proposal" on the table, an offer that the other side can either accept or reject in its entirety, without being able to bargain over its details. Research shows that proposals of this type are doomed to a negative response. Anyone given such a proposal will think that it benefits his rival and will reject it out of hand.

This is the explanation for the failure of the Camp David summit. As opposed to the image of Yasser Arafat as a man with delusions who serially misses opportunities, he behaved like any reasonable person when he rejected the "absolutely final offer" of Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton. Arafat acted instinctively, and was right in practical terms: The offers made to the Palestinians by Clinton and Barak improved immeasurably after Camp David, mainly at the Taba talks.

Olmert should have expected a refusal when he presented Hamas with the "Quartet conditions," headed by recognition of Israel, as an uncompromising demand. Hamas replied with a resounding "No," in spite of boycotts, pressures and threats that the electricity would be cut off, although as opposed to the Camp David summit, we can assume that this time Olmert and the U.S. administration were interested in a negative reply instead of rapprochement.

Brett and Thompson warn of the temptation to agree on the simple problems and to postpone the difficult issues to the end of the negotiations. They believe that it is preferable to discuss the entire package rather than separate paragraphs. If the easy issues are removed from the table first, one loses the ability to bargain over the "core issues."

Israel prefers interim agreements that will focus on trivialities, such as the color of the Palestinian policemen's uniforms, and will put off the discussion of Jerusalem, refugees and permanent borders. That is Livni's proposal, which lies as the base of the Israeli position in advance of the Annapolis meeting: to discuss the "nature of the Palestinian state," and to set aside the "core" for the time being. It is politically advantageous and protects the coalition, but it harms the chances for a future agreement. When they get around to discussing Jerusalem, the parties won't have anything left to give in exchange.

The scholars' final advice concerns negotiations between representatives from various cultures and nations. Here it is important to prepare well, and to understand the internal codes, symbols and sensitivities of the parties.

On this matter everyone has made mistakes - Israelis, Palestinian and Americans, none of whom really understood their interlocutors. In the short time remaining until Annapolis, the negotiators should undergo an accelerated course and avoid the mistakes that caused their predecessors to fail.


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