Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

Read The Latest Post

Many conflicts can be resolved without examining the underlying causes of the conflict too deeply, just as the common cold can be treated by dealing with the symptoms rather than the disease. For an ordinary lawsuit, removing the costs and uncertainty of continued litigation may present reason enough to settle the case, without any need to discuss the pathologies of the parties’ relationship or the flaws in the way one party or the other conducts their business, that caused the conflict. Focusing on problems rather than solutions may even impede resolution of a conflict in many cases, as these discussions tend to inflame parties’ passions. (See my prior post on solution-focused mediation.) But for the most intractable and difficult conflicts, resolution may not be possible without a serious effort to address core causation issues.

In an article in the latest issue of the New York Review, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley raise the question whether the most intractable of conflicts, that between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, can be resolved without examination of issues dating back to 1948. As with many conflicts, possible solutions abound. Agha and Malley discuss the pros and cons of the two state solution, the one state solution, the long term “interim” solution, and the Palestinian/Jordanian solution. All of these potential frameworks for achieving peace present advantages over the current stalemate (although the idea of a single, secular state is probably a non-starter for the Israeli side, and the idea of a union between Palestinians and Jordan is probably not of much interest to the Jordanian government). The general outlines of all of these solutions are well known. What prevents the parties from hammering out an agreement, especially for a two state solution, the solution that both sides have at various times professed to favor, and the one that seems most likely to produce clear benefits for both sides?

Agha and Malley suggest that the stumbling block has been a reluctance on both sides’ part, to deal with fundamental issues that date back to Israel’s creation in 1948: “the question of Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state and Israeli recognition of the Palestinians’ historical experience.” Perhaps peace can only be achieved when the Palestinian Arabs fully acknowledge the right of a Jewish state to exist, and their own past refusal to acknowledge that right. And on the other side, Israelis would need to acknowledge their own part in contributing to the refugee problem.

In more mundane conflicts, solutions are sometimes easy to implement once the more difficult underlying sources of conflict have been acknowledged. I remember in dealing with the dissolution of my former law firm, we all thought that negotiating the departure of a number of partners, and then figuring out how to work out some financial issues among the remaining partners, would be terribly difficult. It turned out, however, that after we had spent a weekend retreat discussing much more fundamental grievances and feelings among ourselves, those business details were much more readily resolved than anyone expected. Once a certain level of trust has been established, agreements are relatively easy to make and maintain. Without that trust, however, agreement is sometimes impossible to achieve.