Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with US presidential adviser Jared Kushner in the West Bank city of Ramallah August 24, 2017.
(photo credit: PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT OFFICE (PPO)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has arrived in the region (again) to explore ways to restart the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Having heard Kushner’s views on that process in a recent Wired magazine article, it is difficult to avoid the impression that if Kushner wants to make some headway in his efforts he needs to become much more familiar with the way Muslims and Arabs negotiate and resolve conflicts.
In the audio recording obtained by Wired, Kushner was heard saying: “Everyone finds an issue, that, ‘You have to understand what they did then’ and ‘You have to understand that they did this.’ But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on how do you come up with a conclusion to the situation.”
While Kushner may not want to get another history lesson, and while he may be used to focusing on the endgame, an approach favored by many Western negotiators, if he is to have any hope of making even modest progress in the process, he will need to take into account at least two major potential hurdles: 1. Muslim/Arab dispute resolution philosophy and practice is predicated on a victim-perpetrator pairing principle. A conflict is usually “divided” among the disputants: one side assumes the role of victim, while the other assumes the role of perpetrator. A true process of reconciliation cannot start until and unless the roles are assigned. The reason for this is simple: Muslim/ Arab dispute resolution prescribes a different ritual and a different “choreography” of conflict resolution practices to each side in the conflict, depending on its role. Until and unless the roles are properly assigned, neither of the parties will be able to act according to their place in the ritual, and the process will never move forward enough to allow the sides to start dealing with substantive issues. With the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the situation is complicated by the fact that both sides have long ago assumed the role of victim and have been unwilling to even contemplate revising this position. There are ways to solve this conundrum, but it must be solved before the start of a peace process.
2. The Israeli demand for direct negotiations with the Palestinians is a non-starter. For the past 50 years, Israelis, as the occupying power in the West Bank, have had nearly total control over the life, livelihood and freedoms of the Palestinians living in these parts. At this point in history, Israelis cannot look at Palestinians but through the lens of occupiers, while most Palestinians do not have any experience of living free of Israeli occupation – in their perspective, a thoroughly humiliating, and debilitating experience. There is little to no chance that the Palestinians, as the occupied party, will agree or be able to conduct meaningful, direct (eye-level) negotiations from such an inferior posture.
Of course, they may be coerced into such a format, but even if they get dragged into the room, their perceptions, actions and decisions will have little chance of ever being seen by their constituencies (and even by themselves) as anything but the result of the dictates of an occupier. An indirect negotiations format will allow the US, in its essential role as the powerful third-party intervener, to act as a buffer between the sides, reframing harsh narratives, and literally dragging the sides across areas of “stuckness.”
There are a host of substantive issues Palestinian and Israeli negotiators will have to struggle with prior to reaching a settlement. However, there is little chance the sides will ever get to this part of the negotiations unless the third-party facilitator – America in this case – understands and find ways to accommodate the central tenets of Muslim/ Arab conflict resolution and negotiations. In the Middle East, pragmatism alone will just not suffice.
The author, an expert on Muslim/ Arab conflict management, is a research associate with the Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies Program at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) of the University of Southern California (USC), and a director of conflict management and special projects at TAL Global Inc., a California-based international security consultancy. He has a PhD from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College, London.