14 February 2007

14 February 2007 - Kelman and the future

I met yesterday with Professor Herbert C. Kelman, who gave a talk last week at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs here at Harvard entitled, “Inching Toward and Looking Beyond Negotiations: A Dual Strategy for Reviving the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process.” I happened to miss most of the lecture, since I had a class that conflicted with the talk, but I managed to catch the general drift.

Kelman argued that it is necessary to look beyond the peace process to the future relations between Israelis and Palestinians, while at the same state moving slowly forward in bilateral negotiations. This “two-track” process, he argued, would create the momentum for peace that could carry the process through difficult issues such as sovereignty in Jerusalem and the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem.

That is, at least, what he seemed to have said. The question and answer session was disappointing, as usual, with participants attempting to propound their own views. One fellow, a priest, went on and on about how impressed he was with the progress and the achievements that Hamas had made since being elected to lead the Palestinian Authority. At that point I gathered my belongings and left.

However, I was eager to meet with Kelman and discuss some of his ideas. I thought I remembered later that I had read a paper of his within a book called The Elusive search for peace: South Africa, Israel and Northern Ireland, edited by the redoubtable Hermann Giliomee and Jannie Gagiano and published in 1990 by Oxford in association with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa).

This book was very important to me as I began thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in depth. The only copy I could find in South Africa was in the National Library, which doesn’t allow you to check anything out. I went to Idasa to see if they had any copies; they told me it was out of print. (Today Idasa’s contribution has been reduced to Richard Calland’s anti-Israel ranting.)

What interests me about Kelman’s work is his application of social psychology to the study of political conflict, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. My friend Theo Schkolne, a clinical psychologist, also has a keen interest in this dimension of the conflict. I e-mailed Kelman and arranged to meet him in his delightfully cluttered office near the top of the William James Hall skyscraper.

Kelman told to me that he was more concerned about Israel’s fate today than he has been since 1967. The disengagement of 2005 had offered Israelis a way forward, he said, but would have required continued coordination with the Palestinians in order to achieve positive gains for peace. For various reasons, this had not happened, and the war of 2006 had—deliberately, he seemed to indicate—stalled the process.

He gave me a paper that he had just sent to a publisher, entitled “The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process and its Vicissitudes: Insights from Attitude Theory.” I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but in it Kelman seems to explain the collapse of the Oslo process in terms of the triumph of “avoidance” over “approach” attitudes, when the reverse should have happened if negotiations were to have succeeded.

His proposed solution is that new negotiations begin, and that they work towards a “principled peace” and an “historic compromise,” as opposed to a bargain that simply reflects “the best available deal.” That means explicitly recognizing each state’s right to self-determination, each side’s historic and present attachment to the land, and a shared vision for a positive future in two neighboring states.

The idea is to help Israelis and Palestinians think of the two-state solution as sharing the land instead of dividing it, and helping them overcome old zero-sum, mutually-exclusive, hostile identities. I’m not sure how this can be brought about, and Kelman doesn’t seem to say, but given the intense discussions going on about next week’s Olmert-Abbas-Rice summit in Jerusalem, maybe he’s onto something.

Kelman suggested a few sources for me to look at in my research, including The psychology of resolving global conflicts: from war to peace, a collection of papers edited by Mari Fitzduff and Chris Stout. We also discussed my paper: he felt my idea about using public institutions to support peace negotiations was new and interesting, but that I shouldn’t neglect the importance of privacy in diplomacy.

I think the point about looking forward, beyond the immediate intricacies of negotiations, is a very important one. It strikes me that the only area in which Israelis and Palestinians seem to be actively working together is on environmental issues. The deal to save the Dead Sea by building the Two Seas Canal, for example, was signed in 2005 by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

I remember visiting the Dead Sea Works, the giant minerals factory on the sea’s southwest shore when I was on a youth trip to Israel in 1995. Normally, students didn’t go there, but our Israeli guide had some connection there. I was fascinated to hear how the company had become involved in both environmental restoration and building peace with Jordan. It might have been propaganda, but I was impressed.

When I spoke to Israelis in 1999, when peace seemed to be just around the corner, they all seemed excited about the new Middle East that was just waiting to happen. They excitedly pointed out Jordanian license plates cruising the roads around Tel Aviv and talked about the new opportunities opening up. Maybe it’s time to revive some of that optimism and think of a the post-conflict, no matter how utopian.

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