With the recent preparatory Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Paris, France, coming on the heels of talk about a possible Egyptian push for a revival of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Israeli leaders and spokespeople stress at every opportunity that the only acceptable track for such a process, from their perspective, is through direct face-to-face negotiations.
Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action again and again while expecting a different outcome. It is clear that the latest Israeli demand for “Direct Negotiations” with their Palestinians counterparts, having been tried several times before with consistent failure, will most likely meet the same fate should it materialize again.
Why is failure such a certainty? Because Israelis and Palestinians come to the negotiation table with two significantly different conflict resolution and negotiations concepts, traditions and orientations. More particularly, it is safe to assume that when Western-oriented experts, along with their Western-oriented political masters, insist on foisting their Western perspective, traditions, philosophy, and practices on an unwilling, unable and unaccustomed Palestinian side, the result will be failure.
The Israeli (Western) approach to conflict resolution is predicated on the following assumptions:
- Individualism and individual affiliation and responsibility are the basis of the conflict and its resolution.
- The conflict resolution approach is mostly interest-based and tends to advocate a collaborative process aimed at reaching a consensus.
- Emotions and values, though important, rarely help promote a resolution.
- Provision of mediation and arbitration services has largely become a paid career and a profession.
- Third-party interveners must be completely neutral and play a facilitating role (rather than an active guiding role), letting the disputants reach a resolution by themselves.
- Civic legislation (secular) is the foundation of Western alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
- Conflicts are not always bad; they can actually benefit the disputants and the community.
- Direct contact between the disputants (face-to-face) is, by and large, a preferred method of negotiation.
By contrast, Muslim/Arab/Palestinian conflict resolution practices are predicated mostly on the following assumptions:
- Dispute resolution mechanisms are religiously based, with Qur’anic roots and Shari’a expression.
- Conflicts are intractable, require extended management and are essentially a negative experience because they threaten the stability of the community.
- Due to prevailing cultural structures, notably the primacy of social groupings (such as family, clan, and tribe), while individuals (or nations) may start a conflict, it immediately expands to engulf related families, clans and associated communities – up to and including the entire Muslim “Umma” (nation).
- Competition over physical resources and/or security and safety needs may cause a conflict, but resolution will not occur unless reference is made to core values such as honour, revenge and forgiveness, and the inevitable victim-perpetrator pairing.
- Third party intervener(s) should be unbiased but are not expected to be neutral in the same sense as Western ADR practitioners are expected to be.
- Interveners generally avoid assembling the disputing clans for face-to-face negotiations.
The history and practice of dispute resolution in the Muslim and Arab worlds points bluntly at a preference for indirect negotiations, through the auspices of a powerful third-party intervener, as the most potentially successful path to actual, durable agreement. President Jimmy Carter played such a role when he mediated/arbitrated between Egyptians and Israelis. The Saudis have played the mediator/arbitrator role in numerous inter-Arab conflicts over the years.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been pleading for indirect talks under U.S. and possibly European guidance. He knows what he is talking about. For disputants in the Middle East to meet directly, without the intervention of a formidable mediator/arbitrator intervener, is almost unheard of (the sole exception is the Israeli-Jordanian agreement). Abbas knows very well that the strong side (Israel) will never find itself under any significant pressure to give ground (literally and figuratively) and that the weak party (Palestinians) will never be able to concede anything, even if they wanted to, without being able to tell their constituency later, “The intervener made us do it.”
Direct negotiations negate the ability of both parties to maintain their honor (a supremely important component in the Middle East context) while actually making progress-enabling concessions. Israelis are almost genetically incapable of dealing with Palestinians at eye-level. Palestinians are equally unable and unwilling to accommodate what they perceive as patronizing and humiliating (and honor decreasing) Israeli attitudes and postures, born out of almost 50 years of playing the role of an occupying power.
Since direct negotiations create no space for the mediator-led maneuvering required to enable honor restoration combined with forward movement, and since no forward movement will take place without a sense and perception of restored honor by both negotiators and constituencies, certainly on the Palestinian side, there will most likely be no progress and no deal.
The power equation in the Middle East is not encouraging from a dispute resolution perspective. Both parties see themselves as victims, a major obstacle to Middle East-style reconciliation, which requires one party to assume at least some culpability (though not guilt). While the Palestinians see America as Israel’s protector, they also understand that only America can drive Israel (and the Palestinians) to make the concessions required to reach a settlement. The Israelis, amazingly enough, are in perfect agreement with the Palestinians on this point, hence their reluctance to allow the Americans to remain in the game when the going gets tough.
Palestinian-Israeli settlement is a remote prospect under the best of circumstances, but absent an understanding and acceptance by both sides on a primary equation that sees the Palestinians as the victims in this dispute (they, after all, lost all the land and experienced exile and displacement on a large scale), no real movement towards dealing with substantive issues will take place. And since the perceived victims in this conflict have a dispute resolution tradition that shies away from direct negotiations with the perceived perpetrators, a demand for direct negotiations is basically a call for almost certain failure of the process, before it even starts in earnest.