Another day, another attempt to broker a deal betwen Israel and the Palestine Authority, this time with John Kerry leading the charge.
Who knows, maybe this one will get somewhere. Perhaps the generalised shambles in Egypt and across the Middle East will create a sense that if there has to be a deal, why not now? Or will the wider confusion encourage Israelis and Palestinians not to move closer, lest something new come along from outside to mess things up? Better the devil you know?
Knowing almost nothing about this problem, I nonetheless am inspired to say a few words having read this piece about the famous Harvard Negotiation Project idea of ‘Getting to Yes‘:
Fisher believed that whether you are pharmaceutical company or a terrorist group, the dynamics of negotiations are the same. Most deal-making begins with two sides haggling like a customer and a salesman at a flea market. The longer it goes on, the harder it gets. Demands thrown out to get a better bargain turn into “take-it-or-leave-it” propositions. Animosity creeps in. Compromise becomes defeat. Instead of reaching agreement, the goal becomes victory over the other side.
William Ury, co-author of “Getting to Yes,” says it’s a mediator’s job to change that dynamic and get the parties to look beyond their fiercely held positions, so they can get to their core interests. Both sides have to stop haggling and focus instead on solving their shared problem.
If Israelis refuse to allow a Palestinian state within 2 miles of Ben Gurion Airport, a mediator could ask: What is Israel’s core interest? Is it security? Is there a way to protect the airport, even if the border is nearby?
Fisher’s passion for negotiation grew out of his service during World War II. He witnessed so much devastation that he devoted the rest of his life to avoiding conflicts. He founded the Harvard Negotiation Project, where he was known for posing questions that opened up possibilities: “What would be wrong with this solution?” He helped Ecuador’s president, a former student, end a bloody dispute with Peru. He trained the South African National Congress on negotiation tactics.
I find the Getting to Yes paradigm incomplete.
The main problem here now (it seems to me) is that the ‘real’ negotiation is not about what will be happening behind closed doors in Washington. It is between a generalised instinct across the ‘Muslim World’ that Israel should not exist at all, and the view of Israelis and most of the Western world that Israel should exist in roughly the formation and boundaries it has now (ie some sort of predominantly Jewish place).
The Muslim World does not care much about the Holocaust. Why should it? It was a massively European ‘Christian World’ event. The Muslim World also takes the general view that if Europeans/Americans feel guilty about what happened to the Jews, they should find them a homeland somewhere other than the Middle East.
These lumpen ideas play over into a sense of endless Muslimised victimhood that in turn fuels unending anti-Western extremism (check out this amazing Egyptian nationalist belly-dancer sharing her robust views on Obama’s policies). There’s not much in it for any Serbian leader to sign away Kosovo – who wants to go down in Serbian histroy for having done THAT? Plus you might well be soon assassinated. Likewise which Palestinian leader now dares sign away key demands or concede that Israel should exist? After six decades of resistance that would indeed be psychologically tough to accept. Oh, and you’ll get bumped off by some or other crazed suicidal rejectionist.
The broader problem is that we are seeing the compleat collapse of Arabic National Socialism, the vicious ideology that has run the Middle East for decades. The problems created by this malgovernment have compounded up to frightening levels. Look at Egypt:
Malnutrition is epidemic in the form of extreme protein deficiency in a country where 40% of the adult population is already “stunted” by poor diet, according to the World Food Program. It is not that hard to get 14 million people into the streets if there is nothing to eat at home.
Nearly half of Egyptians are illiterate. Seventy percent of them live on the land, yet the country imports half its food. Its only cash-earning industry, namely tourism, is in ruins. Sixty years of military dictatorship have left it with college graduates unfit for the world market, and a few t-shirt factories turning Asian polyester into cut-rate exports. It cannot feed itself and it cannot earn enough to feed itself, as I have explained in a series of recent articles. Someone has to subsidize them, or a lot of them will starve. Unlike Mexico, Egypt can’t ship its rural poor to industrial nations in the north.
Or, looking at it another way, Egypt has some 80 million people. Its foreign reserves at $15 billion are rather larger than Trinidad and Tobago’s – or about five times the value of Manchester United FC. Then there’s Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq. All in varying degrees horrible, especially Syria.
It’s possible to imagine that after some far harder pain than this region has had now, the Arab Street comes to its senses and turns its back once and for all on a stupid unreformed Islamist/socialist form of politics that brings nothing but poverty and conflict, and trudges off on a decades-long journey towards modernism. Once that journey begins the Israelis and Palestinians might cut a deal that becomes an attractive part of a wider solution.
In the wonderful negotiation masterclasses presented by the Ambassador Partnership we quote what a wily Afrikaaner once told me: “What the Americans and North Vietnamese were doing in Paris was talks – the American bombing of North Vietnam was the negotiation”. In other words, the deeper process was not about the detail, but about willpower and willingness to take and inflict pain.
So now in the Middle East. When John Kerry sits down with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts they are, basically, having talks. The biggest negotiation is the civilisational Arabic/Iranian powerplay between Obscurantism and Modernity across the Middle East.
And within that convulsive drama the negotiation question “Does Israel exist?” leaves nothing much to say other than Yes. Or No.