Lessons from history: Untying an intractable knot

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Monroe Room of the State Department in Washington September 2, 2010. (photo credit: REUTERS/JASON REED)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Monroe Room of the State Department in Washington September 2, 2010.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JASON REED)
A hundred years ago this month, delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference were deep into working on and fiercely negotiating about the Treaty of Versailles that would officially end of World War I. Decisions made there by the British and French after the war to end all wars created many circumstances that contribute to the strife in the Middle East today, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Often cited as intractable; are there lessons that can be learned from other conflicts once thought to be intractable?
Addressing the Innovations in Conflict Resolution and Mediation Conference at Tel Aviv University, former Irish deputy prime minister and EU Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia, Eamon Gilmore, spoke of insights from the Good Friday and the Colombian Peace Agreements. Gilmore credits seven dynamics those agreements share. By extension they can be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Persistence and patience (unsuccessful attempts): The Oslo process has dragged on for a quarter of a century. Gilmore pointed out within failure can lie the groundwork for agreements down the road. Making his point he quoted from Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Courageous political leadership: Netanyahu and Abbas are limited by their perspectives and internal political realities. Stories of profiles in courage are written by those who are able to rise above fear and doubt, even when those doubts and fears are palpable. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” The Northern Ireland and Columbia agreements were reached when leaders courageously walked that bridge.
Informal contacts (over a long period): Psychologist Gordon Allport’s Contact Hypothesis says negative views can be reduced between groups through ongoing contact. For decades, contacts have successfully happened between Israelis and Palestinians within civil society, many members of the Alliance for Middle East Peace. One, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, is able to succeed in producing long-term personal and professional relationships between Palestinians and Israelis because its participants passionately meet not only over the conflict, but experience ongoing touch points beyond the conflict. As David Lehrer, the executive director of the institute, often points out, those moments create trust. Trust is a powerful element which can create conditions so people who vehemently disagree on core issues are able to transcend those differences and imagine new possibilities to go forward.
Four years to negotiate: The Colombian Peace Agreement took four years to negotiate and the Good Friday Agreement took two years. Israelis and Palestinians have negotiated for more than a quarter of a century with limited results. However, during this period negotiations have never been conducted for more than two consecutive years! The Columbia agreement shows the importance of longer more sustained efforts; even when challenged by violence on the ground as Colombian and FARC negotiators contended with.
Never leave the opponent defeated: Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt wrote, “In his The Second World War, Winston Churchill summarized the ‘Moral of the Work’ in four Churchillian phrases: ‘In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.’ The victors in the long conflict between Zionist Israelis and Palestinian Arabs would be wise to heed those maxims.” Adding to this, Harvard professor Donna Hicks teaches the recognition of dignity is an essential component in conflict mitigation.
The process can transform participants: Former president Jimmy Carter reflecting on the 1979 Camp David negotiations recalls, “We were in our 13th day at Camp David and I decided that it was over because Prime Minister Begin was so adamant about not removing his Israeli settlements from Egyptian territory. I had given up.” Before returning to Israel, Begin asked for signed photographs with Carter for his grandchildren. Carter says how they were signed saved the negotiations. “Instead of just saying ‘best wishes, Jimmy Carter,’ I got my secretary to get their names and I put ‘with love and best wishes to’ and I put (the) names of his grandchildren,” Carter remembers. “He was quite angry with me at the time. He just said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’ But he called out the name of his first grandchild, and then he called out the name of his second grandchild and he had tears running down his cheeks and so did I. Then he said in effect why don’t we try one more time.” Try again they did, and the outcome was the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Implementation is even harder than negotiation: One of the great fallacies about peace treaties is the belief that once the ink is dry the conflict is completely over and all issues have been laid to rest. Nothing could be further from the truth. A hundred years ago, through the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the Republic of Austria was established out of the remains of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. Within that treaty, Austria lost the districts of South Tyrol, Trieste, Trentino and Istria to Italy. To this day tensions remain, but people found ways to move on: as recently as 1992 Italy and Austria signed an autonomy agreement for some of those regions.
Robert Kennedy was fond of paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” Kennedy challenged us not to surrender to the status quo. Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in their present state of affairs. Eamon Gilmore’s lessons from the Good Friday and the Colombian Peace Agreements suggest valuable tools that are well worth paying attention to in how to move forward in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The writer teaches conflict resolution at Bennington College.