Conference Critiques Negotiation Tactics of Palestinians and Israelis

On June 7, 2005, the United States Institute for Peace held a conference entitled “How Israelis and Palestinians Negotiate: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Oslo Peace Process” that attempted to enunciate to the public a more in-depth understanding of the failure of the negotiations that took place at Camp David in the year 2000 and, more broadly, the Oslo peace process. Rather than simply reflecting on the issues that proved to be sticking points in the negotiations, the speakers attempted to evaluate the flaws that typified the negotiation styles of both Palestinians and Israelis, differences that dramatically flared up when they came together in at Camp David.

The event was kicked off with an insightful introduction by former Clinton National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger. Berger offered his opinion (among several held today by Americans involved) and hindsight on the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians through the 1990’s. Attempting to point out the positives of the process without forgetting the misgivings, Berger reminded his audience that the 1990’s saw the longest period of peace between the two parties, beginning with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and the first real negotiation of final statues issues at Camp David in 2000.

As Berger was deeply involved in the second Camp David negotiations, he referred to it as an event in which “the walnut was cracked but could not be put together again.” Berger drew attention to several of impediments to the negotiations, apart from the final status issues themselves.

During the Oslo Accords period, four different Israeli prime ministers came to power - as contrasted to one for the Palestinians - so the dynamic between the leaders constantly changed. Also, while there were good relations between the lower-rank Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, there was little connection between the two leaders, Barak and Arafat, making for what Berger called a “bizarre contrast of familiarity.” These difficulties had nothing to do with the key final status issues of borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, and settlements, but cast a curious spell over the rest of the conference.

The main event of the USIP conference was to introduce a new book sponsored by the agency, How Israelis and Palestinians Negotiate: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Oslo Peace Process. William Quandt, professor of politics at the University of Virginia and veteran of earlier Palestinian-Israeli negotiations during the Carter years, penned the section of the work looking at the Oslo process historically as it ebbed and flowed through the 1990’s. Omar Dajani, a law professor and the University of Pacific and former member of the Palestinian negotiating team, wrote about the Palestinian negotiating patterns through the Oslo process. Aharon Klieman, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, contributed a chapter on the Israeli negotiating tactics (in his place, his work was discussed by the book’s general editor, Tamara Cofman Wittes), and Dr.Wittes, research fellow at the Brookings Institution, provided an introduction and conclusion relating to the ramifications that cultural background inevitably brings to any negotiation.

Omar Dajani, who joined the Palestinian negotiating team at the end of the Oslo period, attempted to first lay out what he saw as the mistakes made by the Palestinian team, second to explain why they were made, and finally to offer ways to prevent them from happening again. In general, he described Arafat as quite passive during the talks, which resulted in a lack of proposals and counter-proposals from the Palestinian side. When proposals were offered, they were late and not elaborated because of a lack of preparation from the Palestinians and an absence of firm and comprehensive information about the issues.

Dajani directly linked the lack of solid preparation to a sense of powerlessness on the part of the Palestinians that grew out of their recent history. Because of the continued dictatorial style of the Israelis in negotiations, the lack of any improvement in conditions on the ground, and the massive historical reality of the Nakba (catastrophe), which left them feeling defenseless, the Palestinians lacked a sense of agency and empowerment, and thus proved reluctant and ineffective peace negotiators.

Looking to the future, Dajani suggested that it was critical for the Palestinians to build solid institutions and infrastructure. Further, the Israelis needed to demonstrate to the Palestinians that they were being listened to, by removing roadblocks, preventing the extension of settlements, and other specific gestures.

On the opposite side, Aharon Klieman evaluated in depth the negotiating behavior of the Israelis. He found that the Israelis were and still are caught up with the issue of national security - so much so that all negotiation arguments were phrased in these terms. This overwhelming subculture of concern for security was due in large part to the history of the Jews and of the Jewish state that fostered the ideal of self-help and a sense of vulnerability (with great political clout). As a result of these traits, the Israelis had adopted a negotiating style that resembled a military strategy. Thus diplomatic wars were couched in terms of wars of attrition or lightning attacks. This style damaged their ability to look at the issues historically or to escape even a little from security concerns.

In a well thought out merger of the contributions by Dajani and Klieman, Tamara Wittes outlined why the clash of the two negotiating styles caused problems at Camp David II. Because each side came from a background of vulnerability, each team constantly felt that the balance of power was against them. The passivity of the Palestinians caused a deceleration in the entire process as Arafat needed to wait for the Israelis to make proposals. Because the Israelis ended up making the proposals, their high-handed style tended to promote further passivity from the Palestinians. Undermining the whole process was immense domestic pressure upon both Barak and Arafat that did not allow either to make quick or effective decisions.

Wittes argued that in the future efforts were needed to rebuild trust on both sides, since much of the trust that existed in 2000 has been dashed in the five intervening years. She further suggested that an extended period of time be given to each side before the new substantive negotiations in order to create more solid prerequisites for long term goals.

William Quandt added to the discussion by pointing out other reasons besides the culture and history of the two sides for the breakdown in the Oslo peace process. The lack of preparation by all parties at Camp David II meant that concrete issues were not written down ahead of the negotiations so that they could be properly discussed. Such final status issues as refugees and Jerusalem were so sensitive that both sides neglected to deal with until they reached Camp David, leading to many misunderstandings. Both sides also had a hope that the incremental process of the Oslo process would lead to later success, but this hope proved false.

Any negotiation of final status issues presents a challenge for both sides - these are the issues that they have been unable to solve in over fifty years. The issue of Jerusalem itself is enough to incite heated argument, with little remaining hope for success. But by looking at the narrative, historical, and cultural background of the negotiating style of each side, the collaborators of this project hope to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of just why it was that the second Camp David negotiations culminated in the collapse of the Oslo peace process.

Evan Hays is a summer intern for the Council for the National Interest. The Council for the National Interest is a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots organization advocating a new direction for U.S. Middle East policy. As CNI Founding Chairman Paul Findley notes, CNI is “motivated by the national interest of our country in Middle East policy… CNI provides a way for all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation or national origin, to speak out in an effective way. Those who participate can help advance the national interest in the Middle East and at the same time help repair the damage being done to our political institutions by the over-zealous tactics of Israel’s lobby.”

Related Links

  • Council for the National Interest