From the series editor: The history of tension, violence, diplomacy, and war between Israelis and Palestinians provides ripe fodder for strategists. In my view, the perspective offered here is one of them. Making strategy is ultimately a human endeavor, even at the highest levels. — Paul Edgar
By Shlomo Roiter Jesner Best Defense guest columnist
As a strategic planner in the Israel Defense Forces specializing in the Palestinian arena, I was privileged to play a role in the 2013 Israeli-Palestinian security dialogue, conducted by General John R. Allen. As a junior officer gaining one of my first experiences in high level military negotiations and planning, this was a great opportunity to both play a role and independently evaluate the conversation taking place. Being part of a military assignment that is so intrinsically tied to political considerations is never easy. A military strategic planner needs leeway to evaluate the situation at hand and build their recommendations independent of such constraints. Such was not the case in the Israeli-Palestinian security dialogue, making the mission at hand infinitely more challenging.
One perennial problem of strategic planning, particularly in the context of international negotiations, was well paraphrased by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who stated, “If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool.” The inability to internalize the legitimate concerns of another party at the negotiation table makes progress impossible. Although the U.S. team approached the dialogue with well-intentioned, thoughtful proposals aimed at ameliorating both Israeli and Palestinian concerns, and although they understood the technical nature of many problems, they did not understand the underlying human nature of those concerns, which technology could not solve. Thus, while proposals such as early warning stations or monitoring by international peacekeepers may have directly addressed concrete security concerns, they could not suffice as solutions for social concerns as intractable as those facing Israelis and Palestinians.
On the Israeli side, memories of the Second Intifada and the catastrophic consequences of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza prevented us from accepting technological solutions in place of Israeli boots on the ground. No matter how many security guarantees were offered, past experience would never allow Israel, as Prime Minister Netanyahu put it, “to outsource its safety and security.” On the Palestinian side, concessions that might result in the appearance of capitulation to international pressure, or that might impinge on the future viability of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, were unwelcome. Thus, a foreign military presence on future Palestinian territory was seen as the continuation of the occupation in a different guise, while technological solutions were seen as displaying a lack of trust in the Palestinian Security Forces capacity to protect their own borders. Having been trained by the international community for over a decade, the Palestinians believed they should be allowed to attain the required border protection capabilities, skills which the long recalcitrant Israeli defense establishment had persistently withheld from them.
While the generous offers may have worked in the context of other conflicts, one cannot simply employ a copy paste approach to the human concerns involved in strategic planning, especially in the Middle East. The essence of the involved parties’ concerns must be understood and validated or legitimately assuaged before progress can be made.
Similar presumptions led to the failure of the efforts of numerous roadmap monitors, particularly envoy George Mitchell, who attempted to employ negotiation tactics which had proven successful in the case of Northern Ireland. This failure to understand and trust other parties to the negotiation translated into faulty strategic planning and overemphasis on technical solutions that were not socially acceptable and thus not implemented.
Of course, strategic missteps not only originated with the American delegation but also extended to the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Israeli team did not understand or appreciate the role of Palestinian public opinion. More than many governments, the Palestinian Authority’s day-to-day legitimacy, the stability of the entire West Bank, hinges upon positive public opinion. Similarly, there was lack of understanding displayed by the Palestinians towards the reasonable Israeli expectation for a transition period, a gradual process for implementing concessions. The Palestinians, wanting instantaneous results, instead viewed these Israeli demands as a negotiation tactic aimed at prolonging the process and forestalling progress.
It is said that the problem with negotiations and strategic planning in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is that the Israelis desire a process without peace while the Palestinians desire peace without a process. I do not believe this to be the case, although it is understandable why the inability of both parties to arrive at a negotiated settlement could be seen by some as a strategy of non-negotiation. But in this case, the inability to make progress stemmed not from a fundamental lack of desire on the part of the participants but rather from their intractable positions and the inability of our American partners to understand that their role was foremost that of principle mediator and negotiator, not principle solver of technical problems. When negotiating parties take positions which they consider sacrosanct and which necessarily negate the narrative of the other, technically oriented strategies cannot play a primary role conducive to broadly acceptable results. Had the U.S. team realized that this was the case, instead of focusing their efforts on marketing technical solutions, their efforts may have been better spent negotiating and bridging the gap in the parties’ opening positions.
There is no guarantee that this would have ensured their success in this difficult endeavor, but it would have certainly made for a more appropriate starting point. It is only when the involved parties both understand and validate the concerns of their negotiation partners and work together to address these, even at their own expense, that a negotiation can be successful. The words of Henry Boyle prove as relevant in negotiations as they do in life, according to which, “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people half way.”
Shlomo Roiter Jesner served as a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces J-5, office for strategic planning. He is currently in his final year pursuing a degree in politics and international relations at the University of Cambridge. Shlomo is also the cofounder and co-president of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum.