Why American Mediation in the Middle East Fails So Consistently

I now feel as though I am in much the same position that I was in three years ago. At that time, as a result of the revolts taking place in the Arab countries, the newspapers and news programmes were awash with breathlessly-written stories about breaking events. The same situation seems to be underway at this moment, as a result of the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


Three years ago I decided to devote five blogs to discussing a whole slew of issues that I believed were having an enormous impact on the situation, but which were not being discussed at all in the media.


As it turned out, now that I can look back in retrospect, my assessments about the impact that those issues such as water shortages, tribalism, and the vast differences in perceptions between those people who lived in the cities (where the journalists were stationed) and those in the countryside would have on future events were all accurate.


Today, I find that the media are all falling into the same old traps, repeating conventional wisdom that is false or only partially true, preoccupied with who is winning and who is losing the blame game, and refusing to explore important issues in depth.


So, for that reason, I have chosen to once again to spend the next series of blogs exploring and discussing in depth many of the critical issues that are part of the peace process that are being ignored and even suppressed by the professional spinmeisters and the media.


I have been living and working in Israel as a journalist and analyst for almost 47 years. And during that period I have learned a lot. One thing I learned this month is that, after trying for 47 years to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Americans, apparently, have learned nothing.


In my previous work, I have shown just how consistently the American government has misread Israeli society. This past month has given me an opportunity to demonstrate that the misreading of Israel has nothing to do with who is president or which American political party is in power. It is the product of ideas and approaches to problem-solving that are endemic to American society. For that reason, Arab society is as often misread by Americans as Israeli society is.


I could choose any number of examples, but certainly one of the best is the use Secretary of State John Kerry made of one word during the most recent crisis in the Israeli-Palestinians peace talks. That word is “compromise.”


On April 3, Kerry held a press conference in Algeria. The US-mediated, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had just collapsed in total disarray. Kerry was obviously frustrated and angry at seeing his well-meant, pet project—one in which he had invested so much time and effort—reduced to a petty, petulant blame game.


April Fools Day had long passed, so he must have been completely serious when he, at least three times, called upon the parties to make compromises in order to save the peace-making project. Later in testimony before Congress, he repeated his call for compromise.


I am sure that that sounded to most Americans like an innocuous enough appeal. However, had his staffers been even the least clued in to Arab society, they would have cautioned Kerry that the last thing that would revive the peace process was a call for “compromise.”


Over the years, thousands of people at the State Department, the White House, the National Security Council, at think tanks and as individual academics called in for advice, have at one time or another worked on the effort to promote peace between the Israelis and the Arabs. Incredible as it may seem, though, not one of them has apparently seen fit to inform the mediators that there is no equivalent word in Arabic for the English word “compromise”—and for good reason.


Societies create words to give names to objects or ideas that are important to them. As a minimum, by refusing to come up with an equivalent term, Arabic speaking nations indicate that making compromises is not part of their approach to dealing with issues that they have to confront in the world.


But that is not all. If you look at how those nations have actually behaved in the past, it becomes eminently clear that the very idea of making compromises is actually anathema because to compromise would be to undermine some of the basic tenets that bind Arab society and shape its approach to dispute resolution.


As I watched the Kerry mediation effort progress, as I said, I had much the same feeling that I had had three years ago, when he so-called Arab Spring began. Again, this time, the media were so caught in the drama of the events and the webs woven by the spinmeisters that the real import of what was going on was lost.


That being so, what I want to focus on first is why, as is the case with the issue of whether the search for compromise is a viable one, the US has consistently been so oblivious to the realities of the Middle East. Then I will return to the subject of why the Arabs reject the idea of making compromises.


To begin at the very beginning: I cannot think of a single foreign policy issue that has been the subject of so much emotional verbal and written debate as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been. And if one looks closely at all that has been published and broadcast, two things become eminently clear: People hold on to their beliefs about Israel and the rest of the Middle East as though they are the most precious things that they own. Newly-discovered facts are used only to reinforce existing opinions. Otherwise they are ignored or perceived to be the creation of nefarious opponents.


For that reason, no matter how open to new ideas a person may claim to be, it is only the very unusual individual who is willing to modify his or her beliefs about this subject.


Second, even those with an open mind find that new, original, relevant assessments are in exceedingly short supply.


Worse still, the public is not being given access to whole areas of knowledge that could lead to more enlightening assessments and reassessments. The reason for both these phenomena is that writing about the Middle East in general and Israel in particular, has become a closed shop.


This latter claim may seem to be a strange thing to say when one undeniable fact is accepted as a truth by all: Thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of diplomats, politicians, academics of all stripes, ideologues, pundits, do-gooders, and now bloggers and talk-backers have had their say about the subject in one way or another.


It thus may seem absurd to claim that that any aspect of the Israeli-Arab dispute has not been the subject of microscopic analysis.


But that is just what I assert. It seems eminently clear to me, if apparently to almost no one else, that each party that has attempted to influence events in the Middle East has first sought guidance on what to do by examining and then adopting tactics and strategies based on their perceptions of themselves, their own group’s political and social traditions and their own group’s history. Only then do they seek out whatever factual field evidence is available. Those facts are then sifted so that only those elements that support the already-drawn conclusions are preserved in memory.


As a result, invariably, the wannabe analysts do not take many of the real, deep, and important underlying concerns of Middle Easterners into account because they simply do not know what those considerations are. And having already decided what the “truth” of the situation is, they don’t care to explore further and find out what those concerns are.


After studying tens of thousands of documents and assessments, my personal conclusion is that the ongoing failure by foreign mediators to find lasting solutions to more than a paltry few of the multitude of problems that beset the region can be traced directly to the conflicting and inaccurate perceptions that are produced by that attitude and approach. Worse still, after being repeated publicly innumerable times, the assessments that are the products of this process then fossilize into conventional wisdom.


Invariably, much of conventional wisdom is a kitschy artifact that is swaddled in sympathy for the party believed (often falsely) to be the beleaguered underdog. I have always found it interesting, though, that if you examine any piece of emotionally-laden conventional wisdom closely, you will invariably find that it is lacking any real empathy for the situations in which the parties find themselves.


After I had drawn most of the conclusions I am relating here, I found that I am not totally alone in my beliefs. My thesis that American politicians and diplomats are profoundly ignorant of foreign cultures—and especially foreign political cultures—is actually an expanded version of one also held by the former deputy head of the Shin Bet, Yisrael Hasson. In a television interview on Israel’s Channel 1 in March 2014, Hasson related that, after the US invaded Afghanistan, he made a bet with a high-ranking American intelligence official. The wager was about the length of time that it would take the US to find Osama Bin Laden. As Hasson tells the story, the American replied “Within three months.”


Hasson then offered to pay for 10 Super-bowl tickets if the Americans found Bin Laden within three years. All he asked for, if he was proven right, was a plate of houmous. He argued that Americans would be incapable of finding Bin Laden in a relatively short time because, if Bin Laden was hiding under a stone, they would never be able to gain the confidence or friendship of someone willing to tell them which stone he was lying under.


In other words, Hasson charges that American intelligence officials are incapable of understanding the motivations and actions of people who come from a different political culture; and this prevents them from understanding what is needed in order to form bonds with people who come from alien cultures. Without such intimate relations, he argues, the Americans are incapable of acquiring the tactical information they need.


Hasson, of course, won his plate of houmous.


I argue that this inability to empathize is even more problematic than Hasson describes. It creates so many distortions in American perceptions that the resulting portrait of the world affects their tactical approach to problem-solving, but also their strategic outlook.


My focus in this analysis is on the Americans. But, to be fair, it is not just the Americans who are afflicted by this grievous fault. Virtually everyone who has tried his or her hand at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has failed for this very same reason. Only a very few extraordinary individuals—Anwar Sadat and King Hussein among them—have had the ability to break free from the mental bounds that have prevented the other would-be peace-makers from viewing events without the filters instilled in them by their own culture.


It is therefore worth reviewing for a moment what some of those filters are.


One of the most important is the widespread belief by Americans in the idea of “American exceptionalism.” This belief then creates an impression among Americans that whatever they say or do must be inherently superior to anything anyone else says or does. This attitude then translates into a disregard of the culture—and especially the political culture— of others…and a distortion of American history as well.


One good example is the belief that the Americans won World War II. There is no question that American participation in that war was decisive. However, it is certainly arguable that victory in Europe would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, had it not been for the sacrifices made by the peoples under Soviet Communist rule.


The belief that it won the war in Europe and its ability to use the recently-invented atomic bomb to win the war against Japan led to one of the main errors in modern American policy-making—a belief that it could always win wars by marshalling enough force and industrial might. However, from as long back as the Korean War, that belief has proven to be false. The truth is that because the US failed to take into account the political culture of the people it sought to subdue by violence, because it refused to address those people using that peoples’ own political cultural markers, and because it demeaned those cultures with which it was unfamiliar, the US lost every major war it has taken part in since World War II…unless you call the invasion of Grenada a “war.”


Another major source of perceptual distortions has been Washington’s bureaucratic culture. Washington is a political and diplomatic hothouse. It is the capital of the most powerful nation on earth. It has the largest number of so-called “think tanks” anywhere. It is also a huge and spectacularly colourful free marketplace for professional lobbying companies and advocates of ideas, beliefs and positions of every stripe.


These pleaders can be found seemingly everywhere, pitching every conceivable appeal for every conceivable cause. No less importantly, the ideas and policies formulated in Washington are spread out from the city by the world’s biggest international press corps, and the caravans of people who shuttle between government and academe.


Ironically, the vast selection of ideas available means that only a very few ever gain wide currency. And once they are accepted, they too often become dogmas. The now-discredited “domino theory” of how communism would be spread, which was accepted as a truth by officials in Washington for decades, is a case in point.


A central problem is that, in Washington, anyone willing to offer an ear to a pleader is almost immediately inundated by more argumentation than he or she can possibly cope with. In self defence, those with open ears have evolved a gene that I have come to call BL—short for the cause of a disease that I have come to call bottom-line-itis. That is a variant of an even more common Washington gene called OP1, which results in “one-page-itis.”


Washington bureaucrats and journalists treat a person who cannot express an issue in one sentence, and then provide the background to it, a full description of what it is, and a proposed solution to a problem in the equivalent of one page of written text, as someone who is best ignored.


In order to speed up the process of deciding whether additional time and energy should be expended, Washington-based listeners invariably look for certain key words. When it comes to foreign policy, proponents of any cause or position invariably must use one phrase—“it is in America’s interest that…”—if they are to get a hearing at all. In other words, an analysis of an event or process taking place in a foreign country may totally disregard what may be in that country’s best interest, so long as the producer of the material can claim that hearing him or her in full is in America’s interest.


An even cursory perusal of the documents of incorporation of most of the think tanks or advocacy organizations operating in Washington and devoted to foreign policy, shows that the phrase “in America’s interests” usually appears prominently in the first or second sentence of the introduction.


Additional interest-getting key words include ones that relate to the specific job description the targeted listener has been given by his or her bosses. Among journalists, the words “exclusive” or “scoop” or “fraud” are sure to encourage interest in a subject.


The mandate of State Department officials is basically five-fold: to report about what a country’s elites say and do, to preach that everyone should adopt American values, to promote the growth in American wealth, to mediate disputes, and to provide what is believed to be humanitarian aid.


For that reason, when State Department officials hold briefings, these five items are virtually the only subjects they talk about. Needless to say, advocates quickly learn that they must somehow put some of these words, or synonyms of these words—things such as president, prime minister, democracy, trade, negotiations, relief— into their appeals at the earliest moment possible if they are to have any influence at all.


As well, each particular field within these five broad frameworks has its own jargon and basket of catch-words, and they too must be included in any appeal in order to show the listener that the talker is an insider worth listen to.


Washington-based and Washington-influenced listeners then almost instinctively marshal all those word clues in order to carry out a form of mental triage. Some proposals are discarded out of hand because they are thought to have no immediate use and clog up the neurons of peoples’ short-term memories. Explanations or assessments that challenge accepted wisdom also, too often, fall into this category because dealing with them seriously would require too much mental effort.


Then there are those words, facts and arguments that Washingtonians believe are worth retaining for at least a short while because it is possible that, with just a little additional work, they may prove to be money-spinners.


And, finally, there are those words, facts and arguments that are repeated or even used within moments after they are voiced because they are a source of immediate income (especially for freelancers), or because they can be used to gain greater prestige (and thus long-term income) within an organization.


The period following the 1967 6-Day War offers an excellent case study of how this phenomenon plays out in real life. Up until that time, Israel was considered to be a backwater for ambitious State Department diplomats. However, once the war broke out, State Department officials realized that a new international diplomatic stage had been created. Even more importantly, that stage provided an almost perfect venue for creating an environment in which the five elements that make up organization’s primary job mandate could be given priority.


As American diplomats saw things, the situation had created a need to cultivate what were believed to be Israeli and Arab political and social elites. One aim of those conversations was to encourage those elites to accept the American conviction that each of the states in the region should govern by using American-style democracy. Another was to accept the intervention by American-approved mediators so that a future war might be avoided. A central policy objective was to ensure the constant flow of Arab oil to international energy markets. And, of course, the Palestinians had long before been labelled by the UN as legitimate recipients of international humanitarian assistance. Therefore the United States was also in a position to broadcast to one and all the sympathy they were willing to lavish on the region’s destitute.


It seemed as though the Middle East dispute, unlike so many other, far messier ones, in places such as Africa or Central America, had been fashioned as a gift from heaven.


Among the many benefits of focusing on this dispute, one stands out. There were several very large, politically-influential American taxpaying constituencies, including Jews, businessmen, and academics, who were deeply interested in what was taking place in the Middle East who were willing to publicize and partially fund what the State Department was saying and doing. As well, there were wonderfully colourful characters who could become the subjects of cocktail party conversations, including Gamal Abdul Nasser, Yassir Arafat, King Hussein, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.


However, the opportunity to become better acquainted with the political cultures of the protagonists was largely lost because there were no incentives and any number of disincentives for State Department and White House officials to get a clearer understanding of the motivations of masses. Undoubtedly one of the biggest disincentives was the classic fear of being labelled a person who had “gone native.” These career-killing words denote a person who is suspected of being more concerned about the long-term interests of the parties involved than immediate American interests.


One side-effect of this blinkered focus was that the events taking place in the Middle East began to be described in American domestic political terms. And from there it was merely a short hop, skip and jump to those public meetings in the United States that were supposedly organized to marshal support for or against an American government policy, but which sounded like and had many of the appearances of a Democratic Party or Republican Party event.


Supposedly non-party, non-governmental bodies, including Jewish organizations such as AIPAC and pro-Arab organizations such as CAIR, also played a prominent role in promoting the State Department’s extremely narrow perception of the Arab-Israeli dispute.


For example, it is ironic, but true that, precisely because they wanted to influence the course of the public debate about Israel, North American Jews felt obliged to use the language used by American officialdom to describe the situation in the Middle East, and to discuss only those subjects that had been raised or already commented on by officials and the punditocracy in Washington.


What then happened, though, was that even when they would publicly criticize one or more aspects of the American storyline and its interim conclusions, because they had to keep repeating the words and the descriptions used by American officials in order to try to refute them, the Jewish lobbyists actually ended up giving the bureaucrats’ often-distorted perception of reality a form of validation and even Jewish certification.


Yet another group, academics and residents of so-called “think tanks” did much the same thing. Even noted scholars, who were believed to be paragons of independent thought, when they repeated the words and phrases used by American officialdom, ended up reinforcing officials’ perceptions in the eyes of the public witnessing the exchange.


A no less important factor in all this is that supposedly politically-neutral professional journals, upon which all those with an academic bent depend for prestige and promotion, have long lead times. For that reason, the editors of these magazines prefer to publish articles that focus primarily on theory (especially mathematically based theory) or on mass international surveys, or on subjects that they believe will remain “hot” been after the long vetting, editing and printing process are over. This inevitably means encouraging and sponsoring writing about well-entrenched conventional themes that are believed to have become “timeless.”


There were also other, additional factors that influenced how this group had an impact on American public perceptions. For example, a particular university department may have had a strong reputation for being “Arabist,” or “Jewish.” And so an academic seeking ways to promote his or her desire for tenure would naturally be inclined to write articles or voice opinions as an “expert analyst” on television with the aim of pleasing those in a position to influence that individual’s campaign for tenure.


If he or she had already received tenure, he or she was probably in the midst of the seemingly endless game of applying for research funding; and a substantial amount of such funding today comes from philanthropies sponsored by people with specific political or ideological orientations who wish to see their views spread. In fact, denizens of think tanks are almost wholly dependent on satisfying the demands made by the think tanks’ sponsors.


In other words, virtually anyone who needs to gain access to the media in order to preserve their income, or for whatever other reason, is ultimately forced to talk about everything that everyone else is talking about.


And finally, the journalists have difficulty in critiquing this situation, or at least highlighting that such factors are work. The reason: They cannot escape working with or for this intellectual cartel because they are highly dependent on the members of the cartel to supply them with the content they need to justify their bosses keeping them on the payroll.


In other words, while many Jewish critics cry “anti-Semitism” when each criticism of Israel is published, and while anti-Semites and anti-Zionists do exist, the plain fact is that the structure of the debate and the mutual dependency of a wide variety of influential groups, too often, are the factors that determine what is said and what is written about the Arabs and the Jews.


The participants don’t have to agree on the ideology they carry into the debate about the Middle East. In fact, the cartel works best when its members create entertainment value by disagreeing. Histrionics are even welcome. However, all do agree on one thing: If each of them is to get as wide a wide hearing as possible, all the participants have to agree to stick to the same agenda, list of topics, and talking points.


As I have already said, over the years, I have closely studied tens of thousands of articles and statements that this process has produced. My conclusion is that State Department-initiated approaches to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute invariably lead to blinkered perceptions. Worse still, the end product of those perceptions has been a series of assumptions—valid or not—that have taken on the value of being truths to many.


A classic example of this whole phenomenon is the wholly inaccurate but common, long-held belief in Washington and many other parts of the world, that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a prerequisite for resolving any and all the other problems present in the Middle East. As the so-called Arab Spring has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt, this assumption has always been totally fallacious.


Another utterly foolish, but widespread assertion is that if only the Israelis would agree to end their occupation of lands captured in 1967, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could be resolved forthwith.


Both these claims, and many other horribly mistaken ones, are a product of what Yisrael Hasson described as a lack of empathy. I would add that a subset of that lack of empathy is the extraordinary snobbishness inculcated in most diplomats. American diplomats, in particular, may preach the value of representative democracy, but their emphasis, in practice is more on the word “representative” in that phrase than any expression of support for popular sovereignty that goes beyond trooping to the polls to cast ballots. It is simply easier to meet one person over coffee in an air-conditioned patisserie than to go traipsing around dusty streets looking for the locals’ favourite backgammon or card room.


James Clapper, the top US security official has claimed in testimony before Congress, that the reason why the US is consistently surprised and sideswiped by events in the Middle East is because it is exceedingly rare for any American diplomat to talk to the common folk. That same complaint can, of course, be made against most diplomats, journalists and academics.


There is little doubt that, in general, so-called “opinion-makers,” no matter which country they come from, rarely put themselves in a position where they can and do try to strike up a conversation at the neighbourhood grocery store check-out counter or at a bus stop. And thus it is also very rare that the thoughts and words of the hoi polloi who are most affected by whatever situation is whirling around them ever become part of the international debate on what should be done to alleviate the problems that have been highlighted.


But there are more reasons for this international predisposition to misinterpret events than just a lack of a willingness to take the effort to listen to others.


To my mind, the most egregious fault of all the foreign opinion-makers is that they fail to understand and accept that there are invariably extremely valid, logical, historically-based reasons why the political cultures in the Middle East have evolved as they have. In the case of Israel, there is an additional fault. As I have shown in detail before, there is an almost universal refusal by everyone who does not live in the country—Jews and non-Jews alike—to accept that Israeli democratic governance is totally unlike democratic governance anywhere else in the world; and therefore the processes which Israelis use to make existential decisions are totally different from those used anywhere else.


The bottom line here is that unless those foreigners wishing to influence events in the region recognize these elementary facts, they will never succeed in their self-appointed task. And this truth applies as much to members of J street as it does to devotees of Norman Podhoretz and Charles Krauthammer, and as much to President Obama as it does to Oxfam and the leaders of the idiocy known as the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction Israel) movement.


For example, American politicians remain convinced that the adoption of American-style democracy is the solution to all the problems that ail all countries. Little thought is given to the fact that the creation of the American constitution was a long evolutionary intellectual process that can be traced back at least to Giotto the painter, and his willingness to break with artistic convention in the 13th and 14th centuries. That process included some of the most intricate philosophical debates in history—debates that were based on an already-established religious, historical and intellectual tradition. But, no less importantly, it also included innumerable reverses and some of the most bitter and bloody wars in human history.


However, that enormous feat             of mental gymnastics has been too often reduced to a belief by too many Americans that holding elections is the sum total of democratic governance.


Democratic governance can only work when balloting is backed up by a strong judicial system and any number of other institutional supports and fair regulatory bodies. But no less important, democracy only works when it is carried on with due obeisance paid to the country’s history.


And this is probably the single greatest failure when Americans come to mediate in the Middle East. Americans have a very short history of their own and are congenitally forward-looking. They consistently fail to examine how history has influenced people; and where people outside the United States are at as the process of creating history wears on.


For example, when the army began to retake control in Egypt because Moslem Brotherhood rule was creating an even greater economic shambles than had existed before, Americans virtually demanded that the Egyptians continue to allow the Brotherhood to govern because it had been legally elected. In effect, the Americans went almost as far as issuing an ultimatum: Adopt American-style democracy or else lose American financial aid.


The Americans failed to take into account such simple facts as that Egypt, while it has at least a 6000 year old history, is actually a newborn in the modern political sense. The Americans consistently fail to recognize that, up until 1953 when the so-called “free officers” seized control of the government in a coup, Egypt had not had a native-born ruler since Nectanebo II in 360 A.D. and hadn’t had a great native-born ruler since Amasis in 550 B.C. The only model for governance in the period between Nectanebo and the free officers’ coup had been either that of a foreign-based Caliph, or a foreign colonialist government.


And both the sultanate and the colonialist systems had ruthlessly quashed any attempts by the Egyptians to develop a system of government that could and would respond to the lessons the locals had learned from their history.


Having now said all of that, and having shown, at least in brief, how policy-making works in Washington, I want to use Kerry’s plea that the Israelis and Palestinians compromise as a case study to demonstrate how and why Americans create policies and analyses that are so out of whack with reality so often.


There are essentially two types of political societies—those based on social contracts and those based on competition between vested interests. Each of those societies can be governed by an authoritarian group or it can be a democracy. Authoritarian leadership groups either impose social contracts to create rigid social hierarchies or divide and rule. That is, they promote social competition in order to prevent opponents from creating threatening alliances. The Haredim in Israel are an example of the former and military juntas usually employ the latter track to retain power.


Likewise, democracies can be based on voluntarily-arrived-at social contracts or competition between interest groups. Germany, especially during the recent economic crisis was an excellent example of a country that had adopted the first approach, while Israel has become a model of how the second group behaves. In general, one can say that those who favour the social contract approach tend to focus on getting an agreement on over-arching principles before getting into details, while competitive negotiators begin and end by emphasizing details. Social contractors believe that the approval of guiding principles is necessary in order to prevent future disputes. There is also an emphasis on win-win solutions rather than “victory” because the former are more likely to lead to greater adherence to the terms of the agreement.


Competitors very often create lasting ill-will because the final agreement is often the product of the exercise of power, rather than voluntary agreement. Competitors usually believe that everything and anything should always be open to negotiation and renegotiation, as circumstances and the power each party can exert on the other changes.


It is not unusual for a particular society to adopt both approaches—a social contract for managing internal affairs and a competitive model when dealing with outsiders.


The model adopted for managing a particular society usually then determines the way in which crisis management, conflict resolution and other forms of negotiations are carried out. Negotiations aimed at creating or strengthening a social contract usually try to nurture trust as a guiding motivation and source of guidance when contracts are written or amended.


On the other hand, those who enter into competitive negotiations tend to treat issues and offers skeptically and even distrustfully. In other words, as the negotiations progress, the ultimate motives of the other side continue to be questioned.


Especially in the West, those seeking a social contract, tend to demand that both sides “compromise”—that is, that they openly demonstrate a willingness to give up dearly-held beliefs or possessions in a kind of ceremony designed to demonstrate that their aim is the achievement of a mutual agreement. In other words, part of the negotiating process demands that sacrifice be hallowed and the final agreement be declared to be of greater importance than any potential constituent part.


Those who engage in competitive negotiations, though, tend to focus as much on the process as on the outcome. There is invariably a constant fear that the process itself will lead to shameful and dishonourable, irrevocable and irreplaceable losses. These losses can include any number of intangibles that the other partner to the negotiations may be unaware of or not care about. In the Arab world, negotiations are always fraught with immediate and deep concerns for intangibles. I have already mentioned shame and honour. But there are many other intangibles such as dignity, respect and reputation that also have to be kept in mind at all times.


I can recall one incident vividly. After a breakthrough in the Camp David talks, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin turned to one of the Egyptian negotiators and said “You are a wonderful young man. You have a great future ahead of you.” At that point, the negotiations nearly collapsed. What Begin meant as a compliment, was taken as a severe insult. In Egypt, calling someone a “young man” is the equivalent of saying that he is of no worth.


In Arab society, where tribalism and tribal approaches to social issues remain strong, tribal social contracts are usually very rigid. That is the reason for so many so-called “honour killings.” On the other hand any negotiations conducted with those who are not members of the tribe are usually based on the belief that everything should be negotiable—even after a contract has been signed. For example, in Egypt, virtually every contract includes the name of a mutually-acceptable arbitrator because it is expected that at least one party to the contract will try to change the terms unilaterally.


In the Arab world, the aimed-at end-point for a negotiation is therefore usually very different than the target of Western-style negotiations. In many cases a written agreement is considered to be of less value than a verbal declaration before a large crowd of witnesses that a reconciliation has taken place. The working assumption is that the public shame that would accompany the breach of such a public declaration would be a greater punishment than any that a court could impose.
Therefore, the emphasis during negotiations conducted by Arabs is less on reaching a contract than on managing and publicly relating the process under which the negotiations are taking place. As part of that process, which is called “ijad khal wassat”—or “getting to the middle”—the idea is to never sacrifice anything of precious value. Instead, every item to be agreed upon is given a relative “price.” Then, as in a bazaar, the negotiators trade items of less value to them in return for the opportunity to gain items of greater value. Once the details of the agreement are carried out, the agreement as such is not believed to have any further value.


I still remember how shocked I was when I used to talk to Egyptians in the mid-1970s about how a peace agreement with Israel might be negotiated. I had been brought up to believe that making peace was the greatest social ideal. No so the Egyptians. They perceived that a contractual peace agreement (something of lesser value) would be the price they would have to pay to get something of higher value—regaining the land that Israel had captured in the 1967 war.


In the end, Anwar Sadat was even willing to accept restrictions on Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai, including a restriction in the type of forces that could be stationed there, as the price for getting back the land itself.


Too often people forget that the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement was based on the same kind of approach to negotiations. Jordan had already formally given up its rights to sovereignty in the West Bank. And so the peace agreement was basically an agreement by Israel to give up lands south of the Dead Sea and in the Arava that it had captured in the 1970s as part of its war on infiltrating terrorists. Everything else, from the trade in water to opening embassies, was, as they say in Yiddish, just “Shmearach.”


Until those agreements were reached, the only alternatives were to operate on the basis of a cease-fire (a hodna) or an extended cease fire (a tahedieh). Because the contract itself is not considered to be of particular value, intellectuals and Moslem religious leaders in both Egypt and Jordan have felt free to call for its abrogation because there is no fear that the land Israel gave up will have to be returned.


So, as can be seen, neither peace agreement was based on compromise. Each was based on figuring out how to match how each side could get something it values most highly by paying for it in a currency that it valued less highly.


Compromise, which essentially calls for each side to give up something of great value to itself in order to reach the holy grail of a contract, would, under tribal negotiating terms such as those that Egypt and Jordan had used in arriving at a peace agreement, involve a terrible loss of face. That is the reason why the Arabs have resolutely refused to invent an equivalent for the English term.


One of the reasons why the United States is held in such suspicion in the rest of the world is that many foreigners perceive that Americans invariably take a competitive approach to international negotiations—and ignore emotional intangibles—while demanding that their interlocutors adopt a softer, more trusting social contract approach.


The fact that Kerry had been so deeply involved in mediating a contract between the Israelis and the Palestinians without recognizing elementary facts such as these boggles the mind. It is also indicative of why the Americans have consistently made so many mistakes over so long a period when trying to mediate between the Israelis and the Arabs.


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