Special Section
Negotiation Becomes a High-Resolution Art

Mission impossible?

HLS negotiators struggle to help Israelis and Palestinians move toward peace

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Polly Becker

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.

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."

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, 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.

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