09 October 2007 - Internal and external negotiations
Over the long weekend, I read a paper provided to me by Prof. Robert Mnookin, head of the Harvard Program on Negotiation. Written by Mnookin with Ehud Eiran and Sreemati Mitter, and published in the Winter 2005/2006 edition of the Nevada Law Journal, the paper, “Barriers to Progress at the Negotiation Table: Internal Conflicts Among Israelis and Palestinians,” makes some interesting points.
After reviewing the history of the conflict as understood by the two sides, the authors describe the internal conflicts that prevent each side from making a deal. They focus on the Palestinian debates over whether to give up the “right of return,” and the Israeli arguments over the fate of the settlements. The inability to reach accord within each society, they argue, prevents progress in the peace process.
This is true to some extent, although I think it needs a few caveats. The first is that internal conflict on one side is sufficient in itself to prevent the progress of negotiations. And given that the Israeli political system has been better—perhaps by a small margin at times—at resolving these conflicts, I think the Palestinian internal conflicts have played a far more important role in obstructing peace.
Another important caveat is that internal conflict can be useful in negotiations. In my internataional negotiations class, we have learned that the degree to which a negotiator’s hands are tied—the smallness of the “win-set” of possibilities that will satisfy her constituents—can actually help her wrest concessions at the bargaining table. Too small a win-set means no deal, but a small one can move things along.
A simple way to explain the failure of the peace process thus far is that the minimum the Palestinians are willing to accept exceeds the maximum that the Israelis are willing to offer. But some portion of the Palestinian leadership is, at least theoretically, willing to accept Israel’s current terms, and it is not clear how Israel could really offer or concede much more than it has in the past.
The challenge is twofold: first, to build Palestinian institutions that are capable of negotiating these internal conflicts, and capable of delivering on commitments made during negotiations; second, to create negotiating processes and encourage leaders that are capable of turning the zone of possible agreement (where the “win-sets” overlap) into a political reality, a magnet that pulls both sides towards a deal.