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Stephen White

Do the Middle East negotiators have the skills to succeed?

As talks begin in Washington between Israeli and Palestinian representatives - talks which both sides have described as negotiations - it is worthwhile considering their chances of success over the next nine months which is the timeframe they have given themselves.  Past experience gives us little hope. The Oslo Accords and the Camp David Summit were both trumpeted as great opportunities, and both ultimately failed. There has been little talk between the parties since, at least in public. Is this because the Middle East problem is inherently insoluble, or because the capabilities of the parties are inadequate?

Hegel defined 'tragedy' as the collision of mutually exclusive but equally legitimate causes.  I cannot think of a better description of this conflict. From a Palestinian perspective, the land they call Palestine is theirs because it belonged to their forebears. From an Israeli perspective the land they call Israel is theirs, voted to them by the United Nations in 1947. Unfortunately, both are referring to the same land. Dissemblers on both sides can find a thousand reasons why their claim is more just, or the other side's claim is fundamentally flawed. They waste their time. Their arguments are self-neutralizing and don't move the search for a solution forward, because the causes on both sides are genuinely mutually exclusive but equally legitimate. As Hegel says, a tragedy.    

So the only two possible outcomes of these upcoming talks are either failure or compromise. Compromise means a two state solution, in which both sides get only part of the territory they see as rightfully theirs, and have to accept that they cede part of it to the other side. This can only happen if both sides are prepared to accept a deal which falls short of their ideal position.  Boundaries will not be perfect, security concerns will not be failsafe, and Jerusalem will have to be shared.  Whatever the specific shape of any compromise which is put on the table, it will be difficult for the negotiating parties to agree, and even more difficult for them to subsequently sell the deal to their constituencies. It will require great leaders on both sides, who have the ability to take the long view necessary to achieve peace, and the charisma to sell their dream to the electorate and get a mandate from them to implement it.

I am sure that there will be no shortage of intellectual ability on either side of the negotiating table, and that there will be no shortage of political and strategic advisors, and negotiating theoreticians, who are there to help drive the process. Indeed, the meetings between the two sides over the first few weeks will focus on these issues - the dates and frequency of the meeting to come, the escalation of representation, the shape of the table, the order of the agenda, and so on.  

But I am less sure when the real negotiating begins in a few weeks' time that the civil servants and political negotiators will have the skills necessary to push the process forward creatively. My doubt comes from reading political autobiographies and watching TV programs where the major players in a political dispute give a blow by blow account of the negotiations. For example Kissinger in  Vietnam, Milosevic in the Bosnia Herzegovina talks at Dayton,  Alastair Darling in the general financial meltdown of 2008;  and of course all the US, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in the disintegration of the Oslo Accords and the Camp David Summit. They explain what happened, meeting by meeting, and how events played out. Unsurprisingly each account suggests that the author/speaker took exactly the right line and displayed outstanding negotiating cunning and capability, compared with the other players who weren't listening, or were behaving irrationally or just generally weren't up to the job! The recurring theme is of negotiating leaders lacking basic skills, surprised at the attitudes and behavior of their counter parties, failing to recognize their real needs, going to meetings either unprepared, or prepared only for a single course of action which removed any flexibility of approach, seizing haphazardly on ideas plucked out of mid-air which somehow become mesmerizingly attractive but which ultimately fail. These people are undoubtedly intelligent, but they display a lack of the street skills of the commercial world which would make their theoretical intelligence more effective. And since most of them are career politicians and diplomats who have never been on 'the street', why would we be surprised?

Readers wishing to volunteer to provide insight to the Middle East peace politicians about these street skills - preferably to both sides, so that they become equally talented and capable - please stand in line behind me! 

Stephen White

With thanks to Amoz Oz for the original thought.

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