Can negotiations hinder conflict resolution? Think about the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, and how many proposals keep getting floated on an almost-daily basis to attempt to resolve the conflict. Somebody comes up with a new formula for peace, and somebody else immediately denounces the idea. One side holds out what they describe as an olive branch, and the other side responds that the proposal just proves they are not serious. Third parties urge the parties to resume negotiations, but the conditions never quite seem right for a breakthrough. All of this suggests that negotiations are not the only the path to peace, and might even create obstacles to reaching an agreement.
Recognizing that the disputes that I deal with are not even a tiny fraction as complicated as the Middle East conflict that has been going on now for more than 60 years, I will still try to draw an analogy from my own experiences. Often in mediation parties get to the point where they understand that the deal being offered by the other side is probably never going to get much better. And the deal is still unacceptable. It doesn’t even approximate fairness. There are all kinds of things wrong with it. At that point in the process, I might try to find a way to suggest that people stop trying to negotiate. Stop trying to improve the deal. Stop finding fault with the deal. Instead just think about whether the deal being offered is better than the alternative of continued conflict. And it always is better in at least one respect. It offers the hope of ending the conflict. At some point the only choice people have to make is whether they want to continue to fight, or whether they want to stop fighting. I’m not saying they should always choose peace. All I’m saying is that continuing to work on improving the deal sometimes prevents parties from facing the ultimate choice that must be made.
To take an even more trivial analogy to compare to something as weighty as peace in the Middle East, think about buying a car. Like it or not, there is a certain amount of negotiation involved in buying a car, and people always worry about how to negotiate with car dealers, and whether they are making the best deal they can. At some point, however, they have to put that concern aside and ask themselves, do they want the car or not? Maybe you’re paying a little too much for it. In the long run, that doesn’t matter so much. Just decide if you want the car or not.
I think a lot of people understand what is needed to solve the Middle East conflict, and it has nothing to do with how the parties resolve the issues of borders, or dividing Jerusalem, or refugees, or settlements, or any of the other issues that the parties are talking (or not talking) about. Only two things are required. The first is that enough people on both sides must want peace. Not necessarily a majority (although there might already be a majority), just a large enough critical mass that is demanding peace. Right now polls seem to show a sizable number of people on both sides of the conflict want peace, along the lines of a two state solution. But there are also a lot of people on both sides, perhaps the more vocal part, who prefer the status quo. I don’t know whether a critical mass demanding peace exists. The second thing that is needed is enough courage on the part of the leaders on both sides to make a deal. And that is no small thing to ask, because history shows that any leaders on either side who are willing to sign a peace agreement face a substantial risk of assassination. That means we need leaders on both sides who want peace so much that they are willing to die for it. Which we don’t seem to have at the moment.
It is because those two conditions–a strong desire for peace on both sides, and a willingness to take great personal risks for it–have not yet been satisfied, that talk of re-starting negotiations seems to be going nowhere, or even counter-productive. Urging parties to sit down at the negotiating table may not be productive if they do not have a strong desire for peace and a willingness to take risks for it. In fact, negotiations under those circumstances might just provide the parties with more excuses for not making peace. So when we hear a party expressing a willingness to talk, that does not necessarily mean they want to make a deal. They might just be trying to demonstrate what is wrong with making a deal.
Another reason that negotiation does not seem to be an effective road to peace between Israelis and Palestinians is that everybody already pretty much knows what the deal is. There are plenty of important details to work out, and they matter to a lot of people. But the basic outlines of a peace settlement are already established. The parties have already been on the verge of a deal a couple of times, but backed away because they were not able to commit to it. That means we are probably past the stage of the negotiations where the parties can expect to make substantial changes in the terms of the deal, and the parties only have to decide whether a flawed peace is better than the alternative of continued conflict. All of this suggests that the most important thing that anyone interested in peace in the Middle East can do is to build up popular movements for peace on both sides.