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Unfolding The Road Map In The Middle East
Anthony Wanis-St. John
Given the close relationship between the US and Israel, as well as the longstanding Palestinian desire for closer relations with the US, one wonders why US mediation has produced no real Middle East breakthroughs aside from Camp David in September 1978.

Throughout 85 years of conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine, mediators have come and gone. Some enjoyed high profiles, military power, and economic resources. Still others had only their conviction that the parties themselves really wanted peace. Most, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, succeeded only in solidifying ceasefires and making small adjustments to the balance of power.

The notable exception to pattern of futile US diplomacy is Jimmy Carter, who took advantage of the temporary motivation of the two strong leaders, Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt, and Menachem Begin of Israel, isolated them at Camp David, and rewarded them handsomely for being the first to make a relatively simple deal in the Middle East conflict. None of these conditions hold for President Bush today. The deal that needs to made is complex, the leaders are weak, the publicity is intense and rewards of assistance are of little use. A Palestinian-Israeli permanent settlement that leaves both parties better off must come about because both sides recognize that their survival and well-being depend on it. And because they themselves make such a choice.

The first and only Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough came about not through an international conference or high stakes summitry, but through “back channel diplomacy,” the use of a secret negotiation channel in parallel with an open channel. In parallel with the Palestinian-Israeli talks that followed the 1991 Madrid peace conference, secret negotiations between the Israelis and the PLO and hosted by the Norwegians took place in a secluded mansion near Oslo, Norway, and accomplished what all the other mediators had failed to do until then; they drafted a peace accord, recognized each other as partners in peace and committed themselves to negotiating rather than fighting.

The Norwegians in 1993 had no leverage over the parties, but invested heavily in building trusting relationships with both, protected the talks from public attention and only occasionally suggested compromises. In short, they hosted a problem solving session hidden from political adversaries, constituents, and from the US and Russia, both of which are felt to serve their own interests, rather than the parties, when mediating international disputes.

Middle Eastern negotiating styles — Israeli and Palestinian — rely to a great extent on interpersonal trust and discretion. Such trust cannot be developed in front of television cameras, which instantly broadcast the slightest move, whether a concession or a gain, directly to highly sensitive audiences who limit the flexibility needed by leaders to make agreements.

Even after their 1993 breakthrough, Israelis and Palestinians still used secret talks to test solutions and discover each other’s real interests. In the past ten years, they operated multiple negotiation channels, some of which were kept secret. Interpersonal trust, discretion and joint problem solving are difficult to develop when negotiating in a ‘fishbowl’ where everyone is looking at you.

President Bush has two viable options: The first is to do nothing. This would actually be more defensible than the current mix of humoring the Israelis and manipulating the Palestinians. A failed effort would not only hurt Bush but also squander scarce diplomatic capital that the US administration needs to rebuild damaged relationships with allies and friends in Europe and the Middle East.

The second option is more difficult. If the US wants to help the parties resolve their current crisis, reach a final accord and help manage their future relationship, the best policy would be one of quiet diplomacy, the kind of diplomacy that is often thankless, providing no immediate political gain to the mediator.

An ongoing process, where the parties come up with their own solutions to their own problems, protected by secrecy (therefore easy to deny while difficult to take credit for), would be infinitely more useful than another round of shuttle diplomacy where the Secretary of State goes hat in hand, asking people to ‘pay’ for a political breakthrough that the US may want more than Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.

Frustrated expectations might provoke another round of violent Palestinian protests and Israeli use of deadly force, resulting in more deaths. The elusive dove of Israeli-Palestinian peace will flutter away once again, unless better thought-out diplomatic method is used.
Dr. Wanis-St. John has been a frequent co-author of articles in The Negotiator Magazine. These articles include “The Strategic Convergence of Negotiations and Sales (November, 2002), “Power Gender and Negotiation” (January, 2003) and “A New ICON for Negotiation Advice” (April, 2003). A review of Expand the Pie appeared in the March, 2003 edition of this magazine. Prof. Wanis-St. John heads the Global Negotiation and Conflict Management Specialization at Seton Hall University’s John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy. You may contact Anthony Wanis-St.John by E-mail at [email protected].

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Copyright © 2004, Anthony Wanis-St. John
Copyright © 2004, The Negotiator Magazine