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In comments made during an event celebrating Israel’s 69th Independence Day, and on the eve of the first visit of Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas to the White House, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said some things worth noting:

“The president is not a super-patient man,” McMaster said (according to Reuters). “Some people have described him as disruptive. They’re right. And this is good—good because we can no longer afford to invest in policies that do not advance the interests and values of the United States and our allies.”

Furthermore, Reuters’ reports that “adviser H.R. McMaster told an Israel Independence Day celebration in Washington on Tuesday night that Trump ‘does not have time to debate over doctrine’ and instead seeks to challenge failed policies of the past with a businessman’s results-oriented approach.”

Well, General McMaster, at the risk of speaking out of rank (I was but a lowly Lieutenant), here’s the opinion of someone who spent the better part of the past decade and more studying up-close Muslim/Arab conflict management practices: Disruption is the last thing needed if you want to have the slightest chance of achieving a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. ‘A businessman’s results-oriented approach’ is not likely to count for much in this situation.

Here are a few points that mediators and facilitators, attempting to help Palestinians and Israelis make negotiated progress, may want to pay attention to:

  • Despite the fact that the disputing sides and mediating parties gathered around the negotiations table look pretty much the same (mostly males, highly-educated, formally dressed and mostly speaking reasonably good English), they come from different backgrounds and certainly from different conflict management traditions and practices; these practices will figure prominently in the way they deal with issues at hand. A “we’re all made of the same fabric” or “we’re all here to make a deal” approach may sound good, but is not likely to carry much weight.
  • In Muslim/Arab conflict context, there is always a “victim” and a “perpetrator”—two distinct sides, each with its own “role” in the process. Unfortunately, both Israelis and Palestinians see themselves as victims in this conflict, leaving no-one to take the perpetrator’s role, thus dooming the process from the word go. Taken together with the former point, this alone can create an impassible barrier to movement towards dealing with substantive issues.
  • Making peace (or for that matter, any other attempt at conflict resolution) in the Middle East is a ritual that (like all rituals) requires a lot of patience and attention to sequence and details. Ignoring those for the sake of expediency may sound good, but is not likely to help the process along.
  • The “State of Honor” of the disputants (particularly, in this case, the Palestinians) is crucial to making progress. Ignoring this significantly misunderstood aspect of ME conflict resolution will be detrimental to positive progress.
  • Both sides at the table will essentially be playing to their local constituencies back home. To get them to make concessions in a way that will stand a chance of being given a hearing back home, the mediator needs to equip the sides with certain re-framing tools—something that requires intimate familiarity with the negotiators, their constituencies and the various applicable tools of Muslim/Arab mediation/arbitration. Absent those, the disputants will either balk at making bold moves or their constituencies will scuttle them on arrival.

The points above are but a sample of the challenges facing future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with Americans in the facilitator’s seat. Even paying attention and crossing these numerous mine fields will only bring the disputants to the starting point of substantive negotiations—another huge challenge. Slogans that work on the campaign trail may not be very useful at the negotiating table.

Dr. Doron Pely, an expert on Muslim/Arab conflict management, is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center (www.sulha.org). He is also an Associate with the Homegrown Violent Extremism (HVE) Studies Program at the University of Southern California (USC) and a Director of Special Projects at TAL Global Inc., in San Jose, CA. Dr. Pely is the author of Muslim/Arab Mediation and Conflict Resolution: Understanding Sulha (Routledge: London, 2016). Read More