Jun 14th 2011

Defying The Rules Of Conflict Resolution

by Alon Ben-Meir

 

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.

The study of conflict resolution is prefaced on the notion that two parties in conflict desire a mutually acceptable resolution to end their dispute, however intractable it may be. The behavior by Israel and the Palestinians, however, suggests a different desired outcome. Whereas both talk about their desire to make peace, their actual actions on the ground demonstrate differently. Today, Israelis and Palestinians alike are defying essential principles of conflict resolution, serving to prolong, rather than conclude their festering conflict.

Diminishing Returns

To achieve a resolution, parties in conflict must believe that continuing their dispute provides diminishing returns. That is, they must exhaust all possibilities to improve upon their positions and recognize that the situation of both sides can only be improved through compromise and cooperation. Recent developments indicate that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have come to this conclusion.

In fact, their behavior suggests the opposite. Today, each side has contributed to preservation of the status quo: Israel through settlement construction and arrogant intransigence in recognizing any merit to Palestinian positions; Palestinians through their refusal to return to the negotiating table and insistence on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, which Israel will not accept. The status quo has become a political asset for each side, even at the risk of serving as a strategic liability for the future of both peoples. Furthermore, with short-term political considerations dominating the political discourse in Ramallah and Jerusalem, neither side has indicated any willingness to take the kind of calculated risk that will be necessary to resolve the conflicts. Without calculated risks, or efforts that begin to mitigate the conflict, it is impossible to move forward toward a resolution-and today in Israel-Palestine, there is neither. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining the conflict today is currently acceptable to both sides. The economy in Israel and the West Bank is thriving, and it is even improving in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas' relationship with Egypt is improving with the renewed open border. From each side's perspective, today's conflict is manageable in the immediate-term, even if both parties appear headed off a cliff in the not-too-distant future.

A Zero Sum Game

Successful conflict resolution also requires a non-zero sum approach based on mutual compromises and mutual gains. Today, there is no such give and take between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides believe that any compromise constitutes a "loss" and the other side's "gain." This situation is aggravated by the complete lack of trust today between the two sides. Without trust, political or real security risks are perceived to be virtually impossible to take.

Through their hard-line postures and rhetoric, each side is discrediting the notion and diminishing the prospect of mutual gains in the future. Their actions are even worse. Here, the "giving," for example, in relation to any territorial concession by either side, is seen as a sacrifice and the "taking" is considered to be deserved and overdue. Positions are not described in terms of what is possible; rather "what is ours." This diminishes the value of any give and take, makes it more difficult to conduct, and it becomes even harder for conflict resolution efforts to succeed.

Lack of Outside Pressure

If parties in conflict are under some level of outside pressure to reach a compromise, there is greater incentive to reach one. Today, the international community is weary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their resulting approach is one that is serving to perpetuate rather than resolve it. There is no pressure on Israelis or Palestinians to act. In fact, their intransigence has been aided and even encouraged by their international benefactors. For Israel, the image of over two dozen members of Congress giving a standing ovation for Prime Minster Netanyahu's diatribe of preconditions and insults confirms the unhelpful and even harmful laissez faire attitude the American Congress has taken with regard to Israel's self-destructive policies.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish community has been similarly idle. Rather than an outcry, the Jewish community is providing support for whatever Israel's policy happens to be, however reckless. For the Palestinians, their refusal to return to the negotiating table has been encouraged by the international community's burgeoning support for a United Nations General Assembly resolution which ignores any possibility of a negotiated agreement. The Palestinians may have greater international support today than at any point in their history. Instead of interpreting this backing as support for calculated risks toward peace, the Palestinians have understood the international support as providing further incentives to refuse a return to talks, and hold out for greater gains in the future. In addition, like American Jews standing by Israel in its foolhardy approaches, the Arab world is blindly supporting the Palestinians, rather than encouraging them toward a historic peace agreement. Even worse, Iran is serving to encourage continued conflict through its support of its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Domestic Complacency

Domestic outcries for conflict resolution create greater political will to generate steps to achieve it. In Israel, economic growth and a stable security environment have blinded Israelis into believing the status quo is sustainable. Support and outcry for making necessary concessions to reach an agreement hardly exists. Prime Minister Netanyahu's approval rating soared by 13 percent after his address to the United States Congress in which he provided a blueprint for prolonging the current Israeli-Palestinians stalemate. The public has been similarly complacent on the Palestinian side. The surge of Palestinian activism has been focused on efforts to isolate Israel and to demand an end to the Fatah-Hamas split, not for efforts to reach a historic compromise with Israel.

The reasons for this complacency are three-fold. First, each side fears the unknown. The Arab Spring has the region facing a period of unprecedented change. Rather than proactively seeking to shape this period of change, each side's reluctance is based on a fear that the devil they know - continued conflict - is perhaps safer than the devil they don't - a comprehensive resolution reached through mutual compromises. Second, there is a lack of political consensus on both sides. Without a clear path developed by policymakers on both sides, each is settling for the lowest common denominator. Without consensus, Jerusalem and Ramallah have settled on internal compromises of mediocrity, and inaction. Finally, each side is locked into old political narratives against one another while each side is suffering from internal division hardly conducive to a united political action. Israel remains focused on an archaic notion of security despite the changed landscape of warfare and defense in the region. Rather than recognize that the only guarantee for security is through a comprehensive peace, Israel is locked into a narrative of an inability to compromise for peace because of the security liabilities they worry it would create. Meanwhile, Palestinians remain committed to the impossible return of refugees to Israel and Hamas' repeated existential threats against Israel. The teaching of this narrative in schools, and the espousing of the right of return by politicians to the Palestinian public is politically expedient. These hardened positions are incompatible with genuine efforts to reach a lasting two-state solution.

Prevailing Pessimism

To achieve a resolution to a conflict, both sides must believe that they can succeed. Being positive about the prospect of deal is an important mindset - if you are entering a room to negotiate without a belief that it will lead anywhere, it will then be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is what is happening today in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither side believes in the merits of negotiations at the present time. The publics are equally skeptical about the prospect for peace. This is a dangerous combination. If peace is not possible, why try? Why create alternatives that could offer mutual accommodations? Why be creative? Without hope that the conflict can be resolved, there is no motivation to work toward a historic compromise--and violence becomes the more likely outcome. In the current pessimistic atmosphere, creative ideas in the search for a solution are being stifled and readily dismissed, if not ostracized and condemned. After years of failure, the parties and the international community are equally wary of concepts which have been tried and failed in the past as they are of new and inventive ones.

The Religious Component

In conflict resolution, different political ideas are considered, argued about and negotiated ad nauseum if need be until a compromise is reached provided that the parties are committed to a resolution. Even in intractable conflicts, time highlights the inability to sustain hardened ideologies, leading to an eventual realization in the benefits of a change in tactics toward greater compromise and cooperation. The religious components of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict have obfuscated this process. Religious precepts deem that it does not matter if one side is right or wrong--God ordained it, and so it is so. The Jews' affinity, for example, to Jerusalem and the Palestinians' claim of East Jerusalem to be their future Capital are deeply rooted in religious rather than political convictions. Regardless of how much time passes, and what developments may occur, religion, particularly in its fundamentalist forms, provides a hardened foundation from which parties cannot deviate. It is very difficult, though not impossible, to reconcile these religious convictions.

Peace is still possible; however bleak the picture may appear today. The geopolitical dynamics must be changed in profound ways to overcome the current shortcomings to achieving a successful conflict resolution. Each of the aforementioned obstacles must be addressed because the alternative to the current impasse is mutually perilous. What is needed then are bold actions that can change the dynamic of the conflict in a dramatic way.

A visit by President Obama to Israel and Ramallah to speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian people would spell out with clarity the advantages of peace and the adverse consequences of continued stalemate. Such a personal, perhaps overdue visit by the president could have a significant impact on creating incentives for the parties to act, and to adjust their internal calculations regarding the continuation of the conflict.

Similarly, a push by the leading Arab states to reinvigorate the Arab Peace Initiative (API) could begin to reverse the atmosphere of pessimism and intransigence that pervades the region. Indeed, regardless of the regional Arab turmoil, and perhaps because of it, the API remains central, if not the only viable framework; to any successful negotiations to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Since the conflict has a strong religious component, sustained dialogue among the religious groupings will be required. Although today, there is virtually none occurring between Jews and Muslims religious leaders, and no incentives being created to do so, the religious leaders have a special moral responsibility to rise up in the name of their religious teaching to find a solution to the religious element of the conflict which bears heavily on the overall search for a solution.

Most importantly, any chance to improve the prospects for a conflict resolution will require one critical element that is currently in extremely short-supply: leadership. Without leadership to act in recognition of the danger the current stalemate poses, Israelis and Palestinians will continue blindly prolonging a conflict that appears manageable yet dangerously simmering. Otherwise, one day they will be awakened by the kind of horrific violent eruption that could spin the region out of control.

*A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on June 10th, 2011 and is available online here: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=224322

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