Intimate enemies: the inner dynamics of peace

Gabrielle Rifkind
27 February 2002

The Oslo peace process of 1993-4 was a landmark in the Middle East conflict. Whilst it deferred decisions on borders, refugees and the future of Jerusalem until 1998, it at last secured mutual recognition by Israelis and Palestinians of each other, and an interim period of Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza and part of the West Bank.

Much has been written about the setting of the Oslo negotiations, and the human dynamics which allowed a breakthrough in the Israeli/Palestinian dialogue that had seemed unimaginable. What all accounts agree on is that an atmosphere of sufficient trust had been established to enable dialogue to take place.

Any agreement at the highest level needs support at the grass roots. At the time, it was reported that the mood amongst the majority of Israelis and Palestinians was one of hope. There were stories of Palestinians presenting Israelis with olive branches.

In these dark times, it is worth remembering that the PLO chairman, Yassir Arafat, only stayed away from the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister’s funeral out of sensitivity to the Israeli people. Four days later he made a secret journey to Leah Rabin’s apartment in Tel Aviv to offer his condolences to her and her family.

The Oslo process: behind the breakdown

In early 2002, it is difficult to recall all this. After 18 months of renewed intifada, violence, hatred, alienation and rage have increased on both sides. As I write, the voices of compromise and progress have been pushed to the outer limits, and an increasingly cynical exchange is taking place.

Even at the time of the Oslo peace process, the fundamentalist communities on both sides were opposed to peace-making. Hamas’ suicide bombing continued throughout the negotiations. Yitzhak Rabin, however, was determined not to allow continuing acts of terror to freeze the peace process. The contrast with Sharon’s leadership of the present Israeli Government is stark. As Yossi Beilin writes in the Guardian on 19 January 2002 (‘Keep Talking’):

“A series of preconditions have been stipulated. The result has been unprecedented escalation in violence. The apparent innocent request for seven days of total quiet hands the veto over returning to a negotiated process over our respected futures to the last extremist on either side…”

In Northern Ireland or South Africa we could have learnt the lesson that what brings about change is slow steady negotiations behind the scenes that are not disrupted by violence.

What caused such a profound breakdown in communication? In an extremely illuminating joint analysis in the New York Review of Books (9 August 2001), Robert Malley, special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs and Hussein Agha, involved in Palestinian politics for more than 30 years, suggested the following contributory factors:

  • Barak’s opposition to gradualism, believing that Israeli public opinion would only ratify an agreement with Palestinians as long as it was final. As a politician with a military background and psyche, he began by discarding a number of interim steps, which included partial redeployment of troops from the West Bank; transfer of Palestinian control to three villages abutting Jerusalem; the release of Palestinians imprisoned for past acts.

  • This stimulated a level of distrust amongst the Palestinian community who were looking for reassuring moves from Barak. Seen from Gaza or the West Bank it read like a litany of broken promises.

  • In addition to this, the settlements continued to be built on the West Bank at a rapid pace. Barak saw no need to needlessly alienate this community.

  • From the Palestinians’ point of view there were more Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, less freedom of movement and worse economic conditions. Intellectuals, the security establishment, the media, business and political activists whose support was vital in the peace process were disillusioned.

These authors argue that the claim that Arafat lacked interest in a permanent deal misses the point. Like Barak, Arafat felt that permanent status and negotiations were long overdue. But unlike Barak, he did not think that doing away with an interim agreement was the solution. Everything Barak pursued as evidence of his urgent commitment, the Palestinians saw as evidence to the contrary. This level of misunderstanding made any geopolitical agreement impossible.

Also, there was incoherence in the Palestinian negotiation team. Palestinian negotiators with one eye on the Summit and the other back home went to Camp David determined to demonstrate that they were not being duped. In opposing American proposals, they were unable to present cogent counter-proposals of their own.

A further considerable obstacle was that the Americans were not seen by the Arab world as neutral, but partial to Israel. America’s political and cultural affinity with the Israelis translated into acute sensitivity to Israel’s domestic concern, wondering whether Israel could sign an agreement with her people. The question was rarely, if ever, asked of Arafat.

What emerges is a picture of mistrust and tactical clumsiness on both sides.

The talks were locked into a culture of cynicism and time pressure, with insufficient attention to human relationships. If at this point a ‘win-win’ culture could have been established in which, as Yossi Beilin puts it, ‘the definition of self interest would have included the satisfaction of the other side’ – could it have made a difference?

In conclusion, Malley and Agha suggest that when the two sides resume peace talks, as eventually they must, they might return to the original discussions, when an agreement was lying there at arm’s reach, ‘as an opportunity that was missed by all, less by design than by mistake; more through miscalculation than through mischief.’

The condition of success: track two diplomacy

Encouraged by this thought, I would like to return to the story of the Oslo peace process. Clearly it would be naïve not to take seriously the extent to which land, rivers, pipelines, natural resources, oil or iron are primary in any conflict of interest and its solution.

My thesis however is that where there are profound conflicts of interest (and there always will be), where the parties have become entrenched and unable to hear one another, unless the relational issues are sufficiently addressed, the talks will break down.

The process known as ‘track two diplomacy’ brings into conflict resolution an informal diplomatic effort directed at the human dynamics of those involved. At Oslo, it aimed to have an impact on the process of reconciling the conflicting demands of national groups in the following ways:

  • To develop a safe environment in which trust could be established

  • To create mutual understanding and the possibility of empathy

  • To help each to listen to the other properly and to manage difference

  • To acknowledge the history and the experience of others (e.g. the Palestinian’s experience of being refugees and for Israelis’ the memory of the holocaust)

  • To learn how to forget and put aside memory and to know when to remember

  • To take back one’s own projections of the other and work on establishing real relationships in the present

In short, track two diplomacy offers the possibility of working on the emotions, and thereby moving to something more honest and sustainable.

How it can work

So, here is the story of the Oslo peace process. Two characters, Yair Hirschfield, an eccentric bearded 49 year old lecturer in Middle East history at a minor Israeli university, and his former student, Ron Pundik, who, having just acquired his doctorate was looking for a permanent position, were the two early movers in the process. Both were passionately committed to a Palestinian/Israeli compromise. They had a certain freedom, as a result of their position as outsiders, and behind the scenes were old hands at illicit Palestinian/Israeli contacts.

In 1992, with only the vaguest commitment from the then Israeli Government under the aegis of their newly elected Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin, talks began with Arafat’s Director of Finance, Abu Ala. At the time, a meeting at a higher level sanctioned by government would have been political suicide.

The secret talks were to take place under the umbrella of the Norwegian Government at the initiative of Norway’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Jan Egeland. A friend of his, Warren Larsen, Head of the Norwegian Institute of Applied Science, and his wife, a senior Norwegian diplomat were to host these talks.

The setting, they decided, had to be secluded and tranquil. They chose a cosy, quiet home setting, with large fireplaces and simple furnishings. The participants were to sleep under the same roof and take their meals together. Seating arrangements at dinner were carefully planned. The bar was to be well stocked.

A special bond was established from the outset between the Palestinian negotiator, Abu Ala, a white haired whimsical man in his mid 50’s and Hirschfield, whom he liked for his informality and sense of humour. Warren Larsen’s four-year old child also played his part…

In retrospect, the talks were propelled by a mixture of impulse, improvisation and coincidence. A couple of independent intellectuals created the conditions which allowed the circumvention of the public bureaucracy. The participants agreed to pretend to the outside world that the meeting was a seminar arising out of a field study on living conditions in the occupied territories.

These participants agreed never to regale each other with their past. This was an interesting precondition – posing us with the question of whether it is better to come to terms with thinking about the past, or whether an embargo on the past is a more appropriate safety net at a given stage in the process.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere was often intense and there was one occasion when a member of the group rushed out to the bathroom to throw up. At times it was like war with screaming, bluffing, passionate love/hate relationships. Both sides issued ultimatums, threatening to go home. But there were more intimate moments when the men talked about their families and their level of suffering.

Different methods were used, including brainstorming, role-play, active listening techniques, and on one occasion: the Israelis representing the Palestinian position and vice versa.

A matter of trust

So what can we learn from all this?

  • Often, when there is a dialogue attempting to find a peaceful solution, the conditions are too rushed. Deadlines are too tight. Moreover, there is too much focus on the outcome, and too little recognition of the needs of the process. This experience seems to suggest that we cannot underestimate the value of building up careful relationships in a conducive environment.

  • When groups are meeting who are adversarial in nature, power relationships may well need to be addressed. If not fully acknowledged, those experiencing less power may well attempt to sabotage the process.

  • If earlier attempts have been made for false consensus, with alternative viewpoints being ignores, devalued or discredited, for fear of disruption – a false sense of security will often be disrupted later in the process.

  • It is important to bear in mind the split which can emerge between agreements made at a political level and at a grass roots level. Political representatives may resist entering into negotiation if hostility back home reaches high levels of suspicion. They fear their loyalty may be questioned.

  • Members of the new group will in the course of their work acquire a set of common values and shared pride in their achievements. They will be incapacitated if, when they return home, insufficient work has been done to inform the political culture at a grass roots level.

  • One should not seek agreement at moments of brotherhood and intimacy, but wait for a greater stability. Agreements reached during periods of closeness may be repudiated when the mood of the group changes.

  • It may sometimes be useful to work in sub-groups when there is a great deal of conflict within a particular group. For example, Palestinian lack of coherence amongst themselves. Where such groups could be facilitated, it offered the opportunity for the group to strengthen its identity and talk with a more unified voice.
These are some of the key stages and scenarios in the process of conflict resolution, and offering them to a general public. It is early days in our learning about these kinds of intervention. It may be necessary to commit ourselves to work on the human relationships of those in conflict over a sustained period of time, until people are ready to listen. Through this journey many more of us will arrive at a deeper understanding of what is contained in Senator George Mitchell’s words: “Man is the creator of conflict and it is only he who can solve it.”

Thank you to David Edgar, and to Scilla Elworthy for inviting openDemocracy to a fascinating two days at the end of January in the Barbican Pit Theatre, on ‘Theatre of war, Theatre of peace: dealing with conflict in the 21st century’, organised by the Oxford Research Group, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Institute for Group Analysis.

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