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Speaking of peace in the Middle East, I’ve been reading the new book about the Camp David negotiations by Lawrence Wright. Surprisingly, reading this account made me feel a little more hopeful about the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the great unfinished business of the Camp David accords, even though the conventional wisdom in light of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent re-election is that resolution of the issues in the territories is now a long ways off. The reasons for hope lie in recollecting that if anything, Menachem Begin was an even more belligerent character than Netanyahu is today. Begin was reluctant to concede on any issues, whether the status of Jerusalem, or Jewish settlements in Sinai, or withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. Yet even this most difficult Israeli leader, a former terrorist himself, was finally able to recognize the benefits of giving enough ground to make peace with Egypt. And Sadat, of course, eventually gave his life for this cause. It shows that under the right circumstances, even the most intransigent of parties–perhaps only the most intransigent of parties–can find the courage to make peace. While there are good reasons to be pessimistic these days about the prospects for resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, those who think it would be impossible for Netanyahu and Abbas to do something similar to what Begin and Sadat accomplished in 1978 may be speaking prematurely.

I was reading the book, not so much as a mirror to contemporary affairs but rather as a case study of a successful mediation. Even though the Camp David negotiations were so large in scale as to involve three national governments, 13 difficult days, a large number of issues, a weighty sense of history, and a great variety of personalities within each of the three camps, these negotiations went through stages that would be familiar to many mediators of much simpler disputes. The process started with the probably necessary but ultimately unsuccessful joint session. After reaching impasse, Carter presented a mediator’s proposal, followed by threats to walk out by each side in turn. The parties had to be persuaded several times to return to the table, until they finally reached exhaustion and breakthrough at the end. The framework documents were not signed until the end of a grueling day and night of hard bargaining, at a point where the parties could not effectively concentrate on the details. After Camp David, the talks almost derailed again during the documentation of the final peace treaty.

Both the Israelis and the Egyptians initially approached these negotiations as do many parties entering into mediation: they failed to recognize any weaknesses in their own positions, or the need to give ground. Neither side was fully committed to the negotiation process; both were ready to walk away if agreement could not be quickly reached on something close to their terms. Both viewed the mediator’s (Carter’s) role as someone who would somehow make the other side give in to their demands. As Wright explains: “Sadat had assured his delegation that the summit was a simple affair. He would present the Egyptian proposal; the Israelis would spurn it; then Carter would step in to pressure Begin to accept the Egyptian offer.” (p. 52)

The Israeli side made a similar mistake, focusing too closely on attacking the Egyptians’ initial proposals, without realizing that Sadat had a fallback position if he could only get some of the hardline elements in his own delegation to go along. Carter was able to break this impasse in part by revealing to the Israelis, perhaps in breach of Sadat’s expectation of confidentiality, that the Egyptians were prepared to make further concessions.  (p. 115)

At that point, before agreement had been reached on many points, the Americans took on a role that many mediators are reluctant to assume even after parties have reached agreement: the responsibility of drafting the settlement agreement. That way, instead of reacting to and rejecting each other’s proposals, both sides would wait for the American single draft and propose modifications. Probably this technique was the only way to move these negotiations forward. Perhaps it only worked because the mediator in this situation was itself a powerful, interested player, with the ability to reward or punish either one of the parties.

Even after the American draft had gone through multiple revisions, however, it still took an enormous amount of work to get both sides finally to accept the reality of reaching agreement. It took repeated reminders of the enormous cost of failure, and the great benefits of success. And even that was not enough. In the end, it took leaps of faith on both sides to embrace the cause of peace.

Mediation, in its ideal form, is supposed to foster trust and understanding between the parties in conflict, with the mediator acting only as a facilitator, not as an arbitrator imposing solutions on the parties. Wright shows that at Camp David, this did not happen. If anything, Sadat and Begin became more hostile and distrustful of each other as they were forced to spend more time confined in this remote location. Carter was also compelled to do much more than act as a facilitator, using all of the power at his disposal as President of the United States to compel the parties to reach agreement. Camp David can be faulted for failing to achieve comprehensive peace. On the other hand, what this flawed process did achieve–peace between Egypt and Israel–has proved lasting and remarkable.