Douglas Noll
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
July 7, 2011 - 12:00am

The recent Middle East events in Washington, starting with the resignation of George Mitchell as President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East and ending with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's address to the US Congress, have created a moment in which a different conversation about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might be useful.

All intense conflicts have universal characteristics. The parties deeply mistrust each other. The parties feel animosity and hatred for each other. They believe that the differences between them are irreconcilable. They believe that their own positions are non-negotiable. They fear peace talks because settlement may require unacceptable compromises. They fear loss of their lives (assassination), prosecution for war crimes or human rights abuses, loss of power, loss of status and prestige, loss of political support, loss of security, loss of resources (land, water), and loss of identity. The parties share a history of abuse and violence that create opposing narratives as to cause and effect. Finally, the parties believe that coercive power is the only way ultimately to win the conflict.

There has not been an intense conflict between two people, two nations, or two groups that have not had most, if not all, of these characteristics defining them. They are present in the schoolyard sandbox as well as in prolonged regional conflicts.

These characteristics can be found in any of the conflicts in the news of 2011. Certainly, they are present in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They are present in the Libyan crisis, the Ivory Coast presidential crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Madagascar, and just about everywhere else where conflict exists. What is interesting is how surprised and stunned people seem to be at these normal, predictable characteristics of conflict. To professional mediators, however, this is the standard operating environment. After all, if these characteristics did not exist, our services would not be needed.

These characteristics are not easily amenable to political solutions. Land for peace doesn't work when hatred, fear, and anger dominate a crisis. Conflict generates emotions, biases, and beliefs that badly distort rational decision-making. We should not be surprised that the simplistic distributive bargaining models that are the basis of international diplomacy fail to work in these difficult conflicts. Yet the international community persists in using an outdated, flawed process to resolve them. The failure rates are astronomical. For example, the United Nations has a failure rate of 91 percent in peace mediations. The regional organizations are not much better.

Such is the case with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu's government persists in building settlements, knowing full well the effect on the Palestinians. Hamas continues its campaign of violence, knowing full well that terrorism further entrenches the hard core Zionist elements of Israeli society. Neither side wishes to compromise for fear of sacrificing sacred values, meaning, and identity for the "expediency" of peace. The United States has tried to mediate by getting one side to give up something in exchange for receiving something back. It hasn't worked so far and probably will not work in the future. Perhaps another approach is needed.

If mediation is to be tried again, maybe empowering the parties to help design the process might be useful. Instead of tackling the substantive issues head on, why not focus on other important, but less emotional decisions? For example, in a general conversation about where the peace process should go, a trusted person might ask each side (in separate conversations), "What are the most important qualities you seek in a mediator?" Just knowing what the parties value in a mediator would be important information.

That conversation could continue by asking the question, "Who would be the very best mediator for both sides?" Who would Netanyahu say is the very best mediator for both sides? What would Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas say? What would Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal say?

Maybe they would repudiate mediation as a process. That would lead to a conversation exploring what kind of process would be best to find peace, if not mediation. Do the parties really think that unlimited and unending violence will result in durable peace? Why? What are their unstated assumptions underlying those beliefs? The key is to ask questions, be quiet, and listen deeply. Persistence and patience are required when the parties inevitably revert to their conflict characteristics. What is learned could be hugely valuable.

If the leaders could accept mediation as a potential process, the trusted person could ask, "What do you require to achieve fairness, efficiency, satisfaction, and durability in the peace process?" Forget about outcomes for the moment. Just focus on what the parties believe would be an effective process for them.

"Who needs to attend? Can the process succeed if parties are missing?" The US and Israel do not want to legitimize terrorism so they refuse to deal with Hamas unless Hamas renounces violence. Is a peace process possible without Hamas? Is terror really being legitimized by talking with Hamas? Again, a trusted person might be able to uncover unstated assumptions on both sides.

This work is delicate, time-consuming, fraught with political perils, and exhausting. It's what professional mediators are trained to do. It does not fit into the news cycle or the political election cycle, which is why most politicians should stay out of the arena. Finally, it takes enormous personal courage to initiate and maintain these conversations. I wonder if the Nobel Peace Prize confers that kind of courage to its recipients?


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