HLS negotiators struggle to help Israelis and Palestinians move toward peace

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may seem hopelessly intractable. Both sides have been at odds–often bloody–since Israel became a state in 1948. But to Professor Robert Mnookin ’68, chair of Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, the truly frustrating aspect of the long-standing dispute is that the general outline of a workable deal for both sides is widely known. Unlike other ethnic conflicts where solutions are difficult to imagine, as in the Balkans, an arrangement that might greatly reduce the tensions and violence between Israelis and Palestinians isn’t hard to identify, according to Mnookin. The mystery, he says, is why that can’t be achieved.

Robert Mnookin '68

Robert Mnookin ’68 is focusing on internal conflicts among Israelis.

To Mnookin, this paradox of continuing conflict despite an obvious solution is due, at least in part, to internal conflicts on both sides–for the Israelis, disagreement about the settlement areas; for the Palestinians, differences on the scope and meaning of Palestinian rights of return to homelands in Israel. The paradox is especially challenging to legal scholars working in the field of conflict resolution, and explains why Mnookin and the PON have taken a keen interest in working toward a solution that would serve the interests of most Israelis and most Palestinians. PON research fellows have applied knowledge they’ve gained in the program to negotiation efforts with Israelis and Palestinians, and Mnookin himself has developed a program that seeks to address the deep internal conflicts among Israelis as a necessary step toward peace.

That program, which he’s called “Resettling the Settlers: Laying the Foundation,” focuses on the status of Israeli settlers–the 8,500 who populated the Gaza Strip prior to their removal by Israeli soldiers in August as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral “Disengagement Plan” to cede authority of Gaza back to the Palestinians, and the 220,000 who live on the West Bank. To Mnookin, it is imperative that Israel resolve the resettlement issue as part of its efforts to seek peace with the Palestinians. To that end, in addition to organizing a conference last year and writing about the issue, he has assembled a group of 11 Israeli leaders with very different views to meet periodically and discuss the resettlement question. Five of the 11, he said, are “very important figures in the settlement movement.” The rest come from the center and center left. So far, the group has held four sessions in Israel.

Mnookin stresses that these meetings are not negotiations. They are off-the-record discussions. “I didn’t have some kind of grand plan in my hip pocket going in,” he said. “I just felt that it would be critically valuable and important for people with radically different perspectives to have an opportunity to get to know each other and understand each other’s perspectives better.”


Credit: Polly Becker

Mnookin believes that the internal conflicts on both sides make it difficult for leaders to develop solutions. What is needed, he said, is for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to demonstrate “a combination of empathy and assertiveness–empathy, because of the need to demonstrate an understanding of the sacrifices on the part of those settlers who may be required to give up their dreams, and assertiveness, because of the need to insist on the sacrifice for the good of the larger community. I think Prime Minister Sharon did this in terms of the evacuation of Gaza.”

He says that these endeavors to reach some level of understanding within both societies must happen before peace talks can resume. One of the problems on both sides, he believes, is that leaders are responding to the wishes of extremist minority constituencies. In his own research on Israeli society, Mnookin has been struck by the strong influence that the “national religious settlers” have on Israeli decision making. This category, which Mnookin defines as modern Orthodox Jews who are fervently nationalistic and who view their settlement activity in messianic terms, comprises only about one-fourth of the settlers, which translates into about 1.5 percent of the entire Israeli population.

Mnookin contends that it would be impossible for the national religious settlers to exert the influence they have if it weren’t for the resonance that the settlement movement has in broader Israeli society, much as the pioneering spirit of the Old West is still cherished in the U.S. “Zionism was essentially a settlement movement,” he said. “The grandparents of cosmopolitans living in Tel Aviv were settlers. They came to a somewhat hostile area at great personal risk; they settled the land, developed the land. The settlement movement sounds those themes and connects to a pioneering spirit.” Good negotiators apprise themselves of this very sort of social and historical phenomenon, Mnookin says.

Ehud Eiran

Ehud Eiran says there should be more emphasis on process, not goals.

Ehud Eiran, a PON fellow, calls this approach “thinking about conflicts in a more conceptual way.” Eiran, a major in the Israel Defense Forces, served as an assistant foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on all aspects of Arab-Israeli negotiations, including the Israeli-Palestinian question. “I think [the PON program] has changed my thinking in a number of ways–not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not only with the Arab world in general, but within our society as well,” he said.

One of the lessons he’s gained from PON workshops is the importance of focusing on process, as opposed to desired outcomes. Eiran has observed that much of the discourse in the Middle East tends to be “goal-driven.” Israel and Arab countries alike, he says, tend to ignore things like international law when it represents an impediment. “The settlers, or the Israeli right wing, looked the other way when Sharon was promoting their agenda using aggressive, borderline illegitimate tactics, but when he changed his position in 2003 and used the same approach against them, they suddenly began complaining about his process. One lesson for me from the Program on Negotiation has been almost the sanctity of process, which runs contrary to Israeli intuition.”

A former PON fellow who, like Eiran, was also a member of the IDF, Assistant Visiting Professor Gabriella Blum LL.M. ’01 S.J.D. ’03 likens negotiation skills to development of a mindset. “You have to get a deep sense of what drives the people who are involved,” she said. “What is their historical background? What are their values? What are their symbols? Why do certain things matter to them the way they do?”

Gabriella Blum LL.M. '01 S.J.D. '03

Gabriella Blum LL.M. ’01 S.J.D. ’03 says some problems can be solved, others have to be managed.

Blum already had extensive experience as a negotiator working with the IDF when she arrived at HLS in 2000. Her Harvard studies, including the PON fellowship, would provide an opportunity to expand upon her work as an IDF lawyer. Over the previous five years, she had spent much of her time as a negotiator with counterparts from the Palestinian National Authority. The Oslo II interim agreement of 1995 had just been signed when she started that work, and hopes had been high. “There was a huge sense of excitement,” Blum recalled. “There was a sense of a new beginning.”

By 2000 that initial optimism had waned due to a lack of progress, but new hopes again arose when President Clinton organized a summit at Camp David in an effort to get the Oslo accords back on track. The summit ended in a finger-pointing stalemate at the end of July 2000, however, and less than two months later, escalating violence culminated in the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada, ending any short-term prospects for peace.

The violence continued, and when Blum returned to Israel in 2003 to resume her work with the IDF, she wasn’t able to apply her Harvard training as she’d hoped. “I went back home to a reality that was completely different from when I first started with the IDF, with the reality of an armed conflict with over 1,000 Israeli casualties and 3,000 Palestinian casualties, tens of thousands injured. So instead of doing peace negotiations and political negotiations, I was working on the laws of counterterrorism operations.”

Amr Shalakany S.J.D. '00

Amr Shalakany S.J.D. ’00 stresses the importance of empathy.

Another HLS graduate involved in Middle East negotiations, Amr Shalakany S.J.D. ’00, has worked on the other side, as a legal adviser in the negotiations support unit of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Ramallah, but he agrees with Blum on the importance of empathy as a negotiation tool. An Egyptian, Shalakany came to Ramallah and the PLO in September 2000, when he was teaching law at Birzeit University on the West Bank. By the end of September, the intifada had begun, and his time as a negotiator lasted only a few more months until the election of Sharon in January 2001, which prompted a final cessation of negotiations.

Today, Shalakany is an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, where he has helped to establish a master’s program in international and comparative law. He has taught at HLS several times and will return to the school in January to teach international commercial arbitration. Shalakany remembers his short-lived experience in Ramallah as disappointing but instructive for what it taught him about the value of empathy and perspective in negotiations. While working for the PLO, he focused on the issue of Jerusalem. The PLO position, then as now, was that it should be an open city–Palestinian authority in East Jerusalem, Israeli authority in West Jerusalem, and free movement of people between the two sectors. (The Israeli position is that Jerusalem remain the undivided capital of Israel with no sovereignty for Palestinians in the eastern part of the city.) After the intifada broke out, it became increasingly obvious that the open-city option was not workable, so in the various negotiations that Shalakany attended, there were attempts to figure out how and where one might put a border without increasing difficulties of movement between the two halves. Nothing was resolved.

But Shalakany developed a strong working relationship with the Israeli city engineer of Jerusalem, Elinoar Barzacchi, who took him on a tour of the city when they first met. “The way I saw Jerusalem for the first time was through the eyes of the city engineer,” he said. “It was fascinating to see how a huge difference in perspective can take place and seem so rational and understandable.”

Roger Fisher

Roger Fisher ’48 says heads of state are not the best negotiators.

HLS Professor Emeritus Roger Fisher ’48 has written and spoken about the importance of those kinds of relationships in peace negotiations. Peace, he says, requires process. And process, he says, relies on open communication between parties to the dispute. Fisher, who created the Harvard Negotiation Project (now part of PON) in 1979, has been a longtime follower of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He first met PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Sharon (who then headed IDF’s Southern Command) in 1971. The next year, his book “Dear Israelis, Dear Arabs: A Working Approach to Peace” was published, and his message now is the same as it was then.

“The Arab-Israeli question is: What is the process they should use for dealing with each other? People know what they care about but don’t pay much attention to how they’re dealing with other people,” he said. “So if you listen very carefully to the process and state your interests and ideas, you can work together to find an option that’s going to meet the interests fairly well of both sides. But that’s what it takes–working together.”

The problem with the Arab-Israeli conflict, like many others, is that heads of state think they’re the best negotiators, Fisher says. “They take positions and then they tell everyone what to do. That’s a crazy way to negotiate. What you want to do is have second-level people and knowledgeable people work with each other and develop something they can both recommend for official approval by the government.”

HLB_Fall2005_6250In the case of Israelis and Palestinians, everyone agrees that such a deal can’t come without painful concessions on both sides. Mnookin and many others (including Professor Alan Dershowitz in a recent book, “The Case for Peace”) say that the only answer, as best laid out at the Camp David summit, is a two-state solution with Israel ceding both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and Palestinians accepting only a limited right of return of refugees to homelands in Israel.

Can that ever happen? Can there ever be anything approaching peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Blum, who teaches international law and international negotiation, believes it may depend on how one defines peace. “There’s a kind of Western liberal bias about dealing with it,” she said. “If you try to look for literature that looks at a conflict and reaches the conclusion that ‘this is insoluble–we’re very sorry but there’s nothing that we can do about this conflict,’ you won’t find anything. On an academic level, there’s always an answer–there are ways around the barriers to negotiation. But it doesn’t always work that way.”

Can the conflict be solved? “I don’t know what ‘solved’ means,” she said. “I think some of the core disputes can be resolved. I think there are solutions that can be found for Jerusalem, for the borders. So yes, on an analytical level, I think you can find a solution. But I think that what we should also accept is that there are still going to be tensions between the two societies, and this will have to be managed over time.”