Defying the rules of conflict resolution

Above the Fray: Israelis, Palestinians are defying essential principles of conflict resolution, serving to prolong rather than conclude the conflict.

Security fence near Givat Ze'ev 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Security fence near Givat Ze'ev 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
The study of conflict resolution is prefaced on the notion that two parties in conflict desire a mutually acceptable resolution to their dispute, however intractable it may be. The behavior by Israel and the Palestinians, however, suggests otherwise. Both parties are defying essential principles of conflict resolution, serving to prolong rather than conclude their festering conflict.
Diminishing returns To achieve a resolution, parties in conflict must believe that continuing their dispute provides diminishing returns. That is, they have exhausted all possibilities to improve upon their position, and the situation of both sides can only be further improved through compromise and cooperation. Recent developments indicate that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have come to this conclusion. In fact, each side has contributed to a preservation of the status quo: Israel through settlement construction and arrogant intransigence in recognizing any merit to Palestinian positions, and Palestinians through their refusal to return to the negotiating table and insistence on the right of return for the Palestinian refugees, which Israel cannot accept.
The status quo has become a political asset for each side, even at the risk of serving as a strategic liability for the future of both peoples. Furthermore, with shortterm political considerations dominating the discourse in Ramallah and Jerusalem, neither side has indicated any willingness to take even the kind of calculated risk that will be necessary to resolve the conflicts. In addition, the cost of maintaining the conflict today is currently acceptable to both sides. The economy in Israel and the West Bank is thriving, and it is even improving in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has an ameliorated relationship and a renewed open border with Egypt. From each side’s perspective, the conflict is manageable in the immediate term, even if both parties appear to be headed off a cliff in the not-too-distant future.
A zero-sum game Successful conflict resolution also requires a non-zero-sum approach based on mutual compromises and mutual gains. Today, there is no such give and take between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides believe that any compromise constitutes a “loss” and the other side’s “gain.” This situation is aggravated by the complete lack of trust between them. Without trust, risks – be they political or real, such as security – are perceived as virtually impossible to take.
Through their hard-line postures and rhetoric, each side is diminishing the prospect of mutual gains in the future. Their actions are even worse. Here, the “giving” – for example, in relation to territorial concessions – is seen as a sacrifice, and the “taking” is considered overdue. Positions are not described in terms of what is possible, but “what is ours.” This diminishes the value of any give and take, makes it more difficult to conduct, and even harder for conflict resolution efforts to succeed.
Lack of outside pressure If parties in conflict are under some level of outside pressure to reach a compromise, there is greater incentive to do so. Today, the international community is weary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its resulting approach is serving to perpetuate rather than resolve it. There is no pressure on Israelis or Palestinians to act. In fact, their intransigence has been aided and even encouraged by their international benefactors. For Israel, the image of over two dozen standing ovations by members of Congress for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s diatribe of preconditions and insults, confirms the unhelpful and even harmful laissez faire attitude Congress has taken toward Israel’s self-destructive policies. Meanwhile, the American Jewish community has been similarly idle. Rather than an outcry, the Jewish community is providing support for whatever happens to be Israel’s policy, however reckless it may be.
For the Palestinians, their refusal to return to the negotiating table has been encouraged by the international community’s burgeoning support for a UN General Assembly resolution that ignores any possibility of a negotiated agreement. The Palestinians may have greater international support today than at any point in their history. Instead of interpreting this as backing for calculated risks toward peace, the Palestinians have understood it as providing further incentives to refuse a return to talks, and hold out for greater gains in the future. In addition, like American Jews standing by Israel in its foolhardy approaches, the Arab world is blindly supporting the Palestinians, rather than encouraging them toward a historic peace agreement. Even worse, Iran is serving to encourage continued conflict through its support of its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Domestic complacency
Domestic outcries for conflict resolution create greater political will to generate steps to achieve it. In Israel, economic growth and a stable security environment have blinded Israelis into believing the status quo is sustainable. Support for making necessary concessions to reach an agreement hardly exists. Following Netanyahu’s address to Congress – in which he provided a blueprint for prolonging the current stalemate – his approval rating soared by 13 percent. The public has been similarly complacent on the Palestinian side. The surge of Palestinian activism has been focused on efforts to isolate Israel and to demand an end to the Fatah-Hamas split, not efforts to reach a historic compromise with Israel.
The reasons for this complacency are threefold. First, each side fears the unknown. The Arab Spring has the region facing a period of unprecedented change. Rather than proactively seeking to shape this period of change, each side’s reluctance is based on a fear that the devil they know – continued conflict – is perhaps safer than the devil they don’t – a comprehensive resolution.
Second, there is a lack of political consensus on both sides. Without a clear path developed by policymakers on both sides, each is settling for the lowest common denominator. Without consensus, Jerusalem and Ramallah have settled on internal compromises of mediocrity and inaction.
Finally, each side is locked into old political narratives against one another while each side is suffering from internal division hardly conducive to a united political action. Israel remains focused on an archaic notion of security despite the changed landscape of warfare and defense in the region. Rather than recognize that the only guarantee for security is through a comprehensive peace, Israel is locked into an inability to compromise because of the security liabilities it worries peace would create. Meanwhile, Palestinians remain committed to the impossible return of refugees, and Hamas’s repeated existential threats. The teaching of this narrative in schools, and politicians’ espousing the “right of return” to the Palestinian public, is politically expedient. However, doing so has created a hardened position that is incompatible with genuine efforts to reach a lasting two-state solution.
Prevailing pessimism
To achieve a resolution to a conflict, both sides must believe they can succeed. If you are entering a room to negotiate without a belief that it will lead anywhere, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is what is happening today in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither side believes in the merits of negotiations at the present time. The publics are equally skeptical about the prospects for peace. This is a dangerous combination. If peace is not possible, why try?
Without hope that the conflict can be resolved, there is no motivation to work toward a historic compromise – and violence becomes the more likely outcome. Even more, in the current pessimistic atmosphere, creative ideas in the search for a solution are being stifled and readily dismissed, if not ostracized and condemned. After years of failure, the parties and the international community are as wary of concepts that have been tried and failed as they are of new and inventive ones.
The religious component
In conflict resolution, different political ideas are considered and negotiated until a compromise is reached, provided the parties are committed to a resolution. Even in intractable conflicts, time eventually highlights the inability to sustain hardened ideologies, leading to an eventual realization of the benefits of a change in tactics toward greater compromise and cooperation.
The religious components of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have obfuscated this process. The Jews’ affinity, for example, for Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ claim of east Jerusalem to be their future capital are deeply rooted in religious, rather than political, convictions. Regardless of how much time passes and what developments occur, religion, particularly in its fundamentalist forms, provides a solid foundation from which parties cannot deviate. It is very difficult, though not impossible, to reconcile these convictions.
PEACE IS still possible, however bleak the picture may appear today. The geopolitical dynamics, though, must be changed in profound ways to overcome the current shortcomings in achieving a successful conflict resolution. Each of the aforementioned obstacles must be addressed, because the alternative to the current impasse is mutually perilous. What is needed, then, are bold actions that can change the dynamic of the conflict in a dramatic way.
A visit by President Barack Obama to Jerusalem and Ramallah to speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian people and spell out the advantages of peace and the adverse effects of continued stalemate, could have a significant impact on creating incentives for the parties to act and to adjust their internal calculations regarding the continuation of the conflict.
Similarly a push by the leading Arab states to reinvigorate the Arab Peace Initiative could begin to reverse the atmosphere of pessimism and intransigence that pervades the region. Indeed, regardless of the regional Arab turmoil, and perhaps because of it, the initiative remains central to any successful negotiations to ending the conflict.
In addition, sustained dialogue among the religious groupings is required. Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, have a responsibility to rise up in the name of their teachings to find a solution to the religious element of the conflict, which bears heavily on the overall conflict.
Most importantly, any chance to improve the prospects for conflict resolution will require one critical element that is in extremely short supply: leadership. Without leadership to act in recognition of the danger the current stalemate poses, Israelis and Palestinians – and their enablers – will continue blindly prolonging a conflict that appears manageable yet is dangerously simmering. If that occurs, they will one day be awakened by the kind of horrific, violent eruption that could spin the region out of control.
The writer is adjunct professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.