I say hope is not negotiated. It is kept alive by people who understand the depth of suffering and know the cost of keeping a horizon of change as a possibility for their children and grandchildren.
John Paul Lederach
Conflicts that grab international attention often seem intractable, running on so much hate, irreconcilable interests and history that any settlement, even talks about such settlement, become strangely absurd to even think of. This conflict is the way it has always been, it is the way it will always be, we tell ourselves. Modern history is littered with clear examples of conflicts in support of such a cynical view. Sudan, Syria and a range of localized conflicts in Africa and Europe come to mind.
A history of failed negotiations and broken promises bedevil the argument for negotiated and mediated resolutions. But the same can be said for repetitive wars and low-level armed conflicts. These go through the same patterns of repetition and failed assumptions and hopes. An endless, grinding war cannot be the end goal for anyone reasonable and outside of the war industry. Outside of war then, there has to be a focus on more constructive resolutions of these conflicts. Some very timely work being done on global conflict resolution and the tools available give us hope and a map through some of these seemingly intractable conflicts.
The Israel / Palestine war is a current and urgent testing ground on which to discuss some of these conflict strategies, and here we will select ten such conflict principles, and apply them to an anticipated start to negotiations in that region. These principles are not to be regarded as sequential steps, and the trained conflict practitioners and mediators that would be involved in such a process will know the dynamics of such tools, and when and how to apply them.
The conflict itself, as well as any peacebuilding processes themselves, are of tremendous complexity and interlinked conflict considerations, and our discussion is forced to be conducted on a simplified and practical level. It can nevertheless serve as a practical point of departure to create some hope in such a process, as well as providing the lay public with some entry-level strategies to look out for when following any such future negotiations.
As a further observation on any justified cynicism on such a negotiation process I can add that much of the well-publicized negotiation processes of the past decades have failed exactly because some of these principles that we are about to discuss were not adhered to. Much has changed in the multi-disciplinary field of conflict studies and practice since the days of Kissinger and company. A further word of cautionary realism before we begin. The horrors of what we see on our screens on a daily basis these last six weeks should remind us that we are not, and should not, be dealing in absolutes here. A perfect peace in this conflict may never be possible. That does not remove from us the urgent need to strive and work towards a better situation, whatever that may be. These efforts should aim, at least in the short-term, to provide the parties involved with a BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) that is meaningfully worse than the negotiated settlement.
This conflict environment is not a world of pervasive moral certainty and easy answers. Unless you believe in a permanent military or so-called absolute solution where talk of annihilation or displacement feature, the solution lies with an incremental pushing back of the needle, building on small gains and victories, until the impossible seems possible. This discussion is also not naïve to the horrendous stated goals, present on both sides, of the utter destruction of the enemy, of annihilation and genocide, of permanent displacement and the literal wiping of the other off the face of the earth. These statements, repeated and recent, must of course be taken seriously and dealt with. They should however not be allowed to become permanent barriers to progress even before we have started. These absolute statements of hate and zero-sum ideologies are of course born out of the very environment which we seek to alter. As similar (sometimes verbatim) statements and slogans from wars in Rwanda, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and here in South Africa during the apartheid years so vividly illustrate, these positions serve as initial goals and rallying cries, and may not be as non-negotiable as they seem earlier on in a conflict.
Effective conflict intervention here will in any event not seek to extract potentially meaningless or harmful concessions or retractions of such positions until the successful conclusion of such negotiations, and even then provide for effective management of the future abuse of such slogans and worldviews. There can be very few preconditions set for such negotiations. A conflict principle relevant to say urban conflict, where negotiations do not happen while chaos is prevalent, is not applicable here. The process and the result must be conducted and achieved despite all the hate, fear, distrust and resentment in the room. It is also not, in my view, an ultimately valid objection to such negotiations to argue that they simply serve to give your enemy pause to regroup, re-arm and come back at you stronger. Of course this happens, we see it in conflicts the world over. That is often simply a matter of poor conflict management, and sufficient safeguards can be built into the process (international monitoring, journalist monitors, pre-agreed consequences etc.) to minimize such a risk. And of course that goes for both sides, so it really is less of an important factor than so often accepted. Additionally, in this particular conflict, Israel is so dominant that it could simply resume where it left off should such negotiations be abused, then with the additional strategic benefit of the public moral high ground that would result from such conduct. These ten conflict principles can be useful and effective whether the negotiating goals are aimed at primarily conflict management, conflict resolution or conflict transformation.
Ten selected conflict principles to apply
In no particular order then, the following conflict principles can be of positive use during such negotiations.
1. Stop focusing on compromise solutions
A wonderfully practical definition of compromise in conflict is when we give something away that we would have preferred to keep. This causes resentment and simply serves to ensure future conflicts, often of increased levels of complexity and emotional investment. Just like we saw with, for instance, the South African Truth and Reconciliation process, earlier Israel / Palestine negotiations sought compromise where compromise was not possible, or where it created new and even additional conflict complexities. This is understandable, and we see that rush to resolution in many complex conflicts. Those involved are horrified by the ongoing conflicts, demands for resolution are high and very vocal, reputations are at stake and so on. Compromise solutions now seem like the quick and relatively easy fix. As we can see from this and other conflicts, this is not the case, and it simply adds layers of future trouble to current challenges. What will need to be understood, and applied, is that this needs to be a process of creative problem-solving, where all involved parties are placed in a situation where they are better off than they would be in a situation of continued armed conflict. The one state or two state solutions, delineation of sacred ground, the control of specific areas, access to specific spaces, possible relocations – all of these complexities must be approached not as compromises, but as new and creative approaches to be resolved in an acceptable manner. This takes skill, patience and experience, but it is the only long-term solution open to the parties.
2. Expand the influence of reasonable voices at, and away from the negotiating table
As much as this plays out as a military and existential conflict, any negotiations aimed at eventual and lasting peace must respectfully and effectively allow for every conflict actor with any influence or interest to be heard and to be dealt with appropriately in any conflict solution designed at the end. This means talking to parties and individuals perceived, rightly or wrongly, as odious, unethical, murderous organizations or individuals. It also demands the true and respectful recognition, and participation of the voices of women and children, involved NGOs, neighbouring states and other role players. Excluding any relevant conflict actor at this stage, whether by design oversight, simply leaves a loose end or enemy that will need to be addressed in future. Practically speaking this involves conflict negotiating considerations such as evaluating public statements in the context of observing constituents, away from the table interventions and discussions, and an accurate assessment of inter-related concerns that may not be apparent or voiced at the negotiating table.
3. Make use of influential and skilled mediators and outsiders to create and maintain momentum in such negotiations
Most of the current parties to this conflict grew up in an environment where The Other has been vilified and demonized, where real world examples, often experienced first-hand, have made the current level of hate and distrust a conflict dynamic in itself. It would be naïve to expect that parties relinquish such emotions and lived realities before progress can be made in these negotiations. Where necessary, some the important bridge-builders of the early stages of such negotiations may have to be outsiders, mediators that can make their voices actually heard when conveying hard realities. Here again we see a range of conflict mismanagement events, or just political indifference, from a range of political parties and individuals who have nailed their colours to respective masts in this conflict, and who thereby make common cause with a side that would make them, at best, less efficient in conveying these hard messages or in persuading people to act in their own best interests. Political and conflict management maturity and efficiency here demands that specific tasks and negotiation or mediation leadership roles may have to be handed to acceptable and competent conflict outsiders, a task that is not always easily conceded to in such intensely personal conflicts, with such a high level of distrust. This does not require true neutral participants (see my recent article on the problems with neutrality in complex conflicts), but parties who are sufficiently able to convey and work with what needs to be effectively communicated.
4. Try to minimize a reliance on trust for the early stages of progress and development of any peace plans
Complex global conflicts often fall apart by the simple observation of peace processes being spoiled by conflict actors not involved, or not interested in peace, or with their own agenda. Sensitive negotiations are derailed by seeming setbacks, isolated acts of violence, hostile public and social media statements and so on, and pretty soon all progress has been negated. As we have seen with several other global conflicts, as well as the Israel / Palestinian war, these precarious positions often follow on unrealistic expectations, and an incomplete and inefficient preparation of conflicting parties for such events. Proper discussions and warnings, meaningful pressure release and management mechanisms, early transparency, practical accountability processes or conventions, and suitable consequences can all serve to keep difficult and sensitive processes on track. Stated differently then, early negotiating processes and plans should rely as little as possible on mutual trust, and be designed to not just operate independently of that, but to actually expect and plan for disruptive acts that will further erode trust. Trust, inasmuch as it is necessary in modern conflict resolution and diplomacy, can be established and improved later on.
5. Make the central pillar of all involved conflict strategies and solutions the fact that this is ultimately an identity conflict
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is perhaps the ultimate example of the dynamics involved in an identity conflict. I have written extensively about the complexities of identity conflicts, and the invaluable input from a multidisciplinary field involving psychology, social sciences, neuro-biology, and a host of other disciplines. An immensely rich and complex field, identity conflicts explained in a nutshell means that we are all constituted of a variety of beliefs, preferences, goals, fears and ambitions, some of which we are consciously aware of and others not. These inputs, if we can call it that, make us who we are: mother, South African, doctor, friend, wife, activist – all in one person. It is who we are, even though we do not consciously give it much thought. This identity sets us up into making choices – some of our identities we are born into, with little or no choice, and others we actively choose to belong to. These groups, these identities, provide us with comfort, security, prosperity, connection and belonging, meaning and in some instances, life and death. Conflict studies in recent years have effectively show us how this group, this identity, means that this “me” leads to an “us”, and once there is an “us” there must of course be a “them”. Our identities are as much a matter of what we are as what we are not. Any attack on this identity is then not primarily experienced as a simple, objective matter of determining the objective facts, but as an attack on what is important to us, on who we are. Disconfirming evidence, even when seemingly objective and scientific, can be experienced as existential threats, and we are remarkably adept at then not only finding seemingly objective ways to reject such “attacks”, but to become further entrenched in our views. In this important manner, persuasion attempts not highly skilled in dealing with identity conflicts are not just inefficient, but actually counter-productive in that it leaves the opponent even deeper and more confidently resolved in maintaining that position that we are seeking to move him from. Objective facts (such as they may be), are therefore not immaterial, but they have to be carefully managed in the correct way so as to be of maximum persuasive benefit. The Israel/Palestine conflict deals with people who experience the conflict in clear existential terms, this is about more than previous agreements and realities that may seem self-evident to those not so involved. Their very identities, their religious, emotional, family values and identities, to name but a few, are at stake here, and it is high time that advanced negotiations take cognizance of this, and employ modern conflict negotiation measures to deal with it. Simply put, any negotiating team that does not fully understand or apply this aspect will fail, and not just fail, make matters worse for those to come after them.
6. Do not seek to resolve the entire problem with one big master plan
Any negotiated peace plan will stand or fall on whether it gets accepted by a majority of those directly affected by the conflict. The sweeping, all-encompassing plans of yesteryear can easily be understood for their good intentions, but in modern conflict terms that makes this complex conflict harder to handle, not easier. Such initial efforts should set difficult but achievable goals and results, which can all be measured, monitored, managed and celebrated. Small nudges, small victories can then be escalated into bigger and more ambitious aims. Several apparently reasonable proposals that would be raised in the current environment will be rejected simply because of the current conflict environment, while it may be better received and managed in a conflict environment higher on trust and lower on rhetoric and revenge.
7. Provide relevant logistical support to all parties during these negotiations
The very process of participating in such a conflict negotiation process in itself, regardless of the specific content thereof, will prove to contain daunting challenges for all or most of the participants. Pressures to achieve specific goals, to derail or destroy such process and historic demands will be at an unbearable level. Death threats, personal attacks, targeted media pressure and a host of other complications will all have to be factored in, as losing sight of this, or losing control thereof, will simply make it easier for the parties to conduct themselves poorly or to withdraw from the process. Again, the benefit of persisting and succeeding must simply outweigh the risks and pressures of not succeeding. Here those guiding the conflict management should provide adequate support in safety, negotiation support and skills transfer, direct or indirect advice and so on.
8. Monitoring and dissent should form a part of the process and the solution
Conflict management history in the Israel/Palestine and other global conflicts during the last few decades show the dangers inherent in ineffective monitoring and mechanisms of dealing with dissent as the process develops. Subject to what we discussed earlier on the crucial topic of identity, and what we will be dealing with on saving face below, the very process of negotiation should have in-built and pre-agreed mechanisms for monitoring progress, how workable realities can be agreed upon, and deadlock-breaking mechanisms designed to move the process along before it derails. This should also include mechanisms where the parties can openly dissent and speak their minds, without that escalating into derailment. Available and generally successful mechanisms here can include international monitoring and assessments, mediation and arbitration on specific ancillary disputes arising, confidentiality understandings and contingency agreements, entered into prior to such situations arising. Studies show that conflict participants are prepared to act in ways that are inimical to their own best interests where they perceive processes involved to be unfair or unethical, so this part of the conflict journey is far more important than is often assumed.
9. Face saving
One of the areas where conflict studies and practice has made inspiring progress in recent years is a better understanding of the value and crucial importance of face saving in conflicts, especially complex conflicts such as the present one under discussion. Studies (and practice) show clearly that parties are quite prepared to walk away from negotiations and proposed solutions, even when such processes or solutions are in their admitted best interests, if they are required to lose an unacceptable level of face in the process. The technical concept of face in conflict studies simply means how we want others to perceive us, and to an extent how we see ourselves. This has a bearing, of course, on the identity conflict aspect of our discussion, but it has developed into an important component and dynamic of modern conflict management and negotiation. Both of these societies (as well as most of the surrounding nations) are decidedly honour-based societies, and insults, historical enmity, sacred spaces, religious sensitivities and a range of unique cultural assumptions make face-saving an essential component of what lies ahead. It is, in fact, one of the main causes of the conflict when mismanaged. Any process and eventual solution will have to carefully navigate the face-saving requirement, and attach more value and importance to that as a conflict dynamic than being right. It would include allowing both or all sides involved to tell the story of the process and the solution in a way that is acceptable to their constituents. This should certainly include a managing of perceptions of who is the aggressor, who played a role in the eventual outcome and so on.
10. The solution must be sustainable
The first nine strategies all lead into one over-arching principle: the solution, the peace arrived at, must be a sustainable and reasonable one. This does not require an absolute 50-50 result, but it must, beyond all debate, allow the involved parties to build and maintain a respectful, dignified and healthy future for their people. Getting the identity and face-saving components wrong, for example, simply dooms such a solution right at the start. It may not be a completely fair solution, it will undoubtedly not address all historical claims and disputes, and it will no doubt require some awful choices to be made, but if it is designed, negotiated and implemented correctly, it is the only feasible solution that any of the parties would want to explain to future generations. To structure, negotiate and implement that, using these principles – therein lies the challenge and the enormous stakes at hand.
Much of the rhetoric that we see in the media and on social media on this war, especially since the 7th October, is born from the very mismanagement or non-application of a sufficient number of the topics that we have discussed. Amidst the incredible horror of the war, the global polarization that will take decades to undo, with a growing despair about the conflict and its predictable rise in extremism as a consequence, there is one potential flicker of light that I try to keep my eyes on in all of this darkness, and that is the conflict principle that sequence and timing are important modern conflict dynamics. William Zartman’s concept of conflict ripeness tells us that some complex conflicts only reach a stage of real openness to effective resolution once a so-called state of mutually hurting stalemate (MHS) has been reached, where neither party can further cost-effectively escalate the conflict to victory. Only then do both parties, exhausted and with a renewed sense of the futility and costs of their ongoing conflict, are enabled to turn to reasonable alternatives, some which they may not have been prepared to consider, or able to see at all, before the MHS.
The events since the 7th October is more than just another chapter in this awful war. I believe that a few important conflict dynamics have changed. Old alliances have been tested, and the price of those alliance may be up for revision. The power of public perception has become far more engaged, far more vocal and influential than it was before, activism has been created that will not sit down soon. May one day soon we look back on these events and see how it, in all its horrendous suffering and pain, also created the seeds of a true peace in that part of our world.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022)
2. Various articles on our blog at www.conflict-conversations.co.za
3. For in-depth studies on identity conflicts, see Dangerous Magic (above), or the work of people like Jonathan Haidt, Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, to name but a few.
4. For the role of modern mediation in global conflicts, see my essay in the 2nd edition of The Routledge Handbook of Peacebuilding, the second edition, which should be published very soon.
5. Intractable Conflicts by Daniel Bar-Tal
6. The Way Out by Peter T. Coleman
7. Staying with conflict by Bernard Mayer
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information)
Andre Vlok (c)