The Road to Hell Is Paved with Negotiations

A memorable line from a memorably funny movie called The Hot Rock with Robert Redford and Zero Mostel is delivered by a diplomat from a make-believe African country who has hired a band of bungling crooks to recover an enormous diamond stolen by the unscrupulous Mostel. After tripping over themselves time after time in vain attempts to procure the gem, the gang that couldn't steal straight is admonished by the frustrated African who has sunk too much money in what has become a fruitless enterprise: "I've heard of the habitual criminal, but never the habitual crime."

The Oslo so-called peace process could be the 21st century's leading candidate for the "habitual crime." Now approaching 16 years (takes your breath away, doesn't it?), unlike the proved process that produces American cheese, the Oslo process has produced nothing edible, but rather, it would seem, lots of poison.

One of the chief negotiators for Israel present at the destruction and a veteran legal expert for the Foreign Ministry, Daniel Taub admitted as much during a recent address to the elite of Harvard's Project on Negotiation (PON). He is currently on a North American tour promoting an initiative called "The Culture of Peace," launched by the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, an initiative that, judging from his laments over a failed peace process, should probably have been the horse which preceded the cart back in 1993.

Begun in the 1980s, the PON is a consortium of academics -- legal and business professionals --from Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. Taub himself attended Harvard's PON during the 1990s. The guiding light and founder of the project was none other than Roger Fisher, the guru of conflict resolution, whose Getting to Yes has been a bestseller for decades. The "sage of the deal" was referred to a number of times during the presentation, most notably in his observation that "while there may be situations where you can't reach agreements, there is no situation that cannot be improved by negotiation." I'm not so sure of that observation, especially if, during the course of negotiation without resolution, one party's cards are placed face up on the table while the other party's cards are rarely revealed.

An overlooked and critical part of Taub's analysis of the Oslo disaster was his incomplete depiction of the negotiating table. While correctly positioning the negotiators on either side of the table, what was missing from the diagram were the invisible negotiators -- on the Israeli side, a team consisting of no one but themselves, while on the Palestinian side were the majority of the "international community" and hundreds of powerful NGOs. Whenever the Palestinians wanted to stall or divert discussions involving significant compromise or compliance, human rights issues were brought up with the implicit threat that there were thousands of "invisible" negotiators ready to back them up unconditionally.

The skills and models developed by the PON have been applied to a wide variety of situations from primarily acquisition and merger scenarios to international conflict resolution. Taub raised the example of negotiation success in the decades-long war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. But what might have worked for the Good Friday Agreement -- especially the ultimate agreement by the IRA to disarm -- has proved elusive at best when brought to bear on the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The points of difference between the Northern Ireland conflict and the Israeli-Arab conflict are significant because they are existential. The IRA and its Catholic viewpoint did not espouse a 1400-year-old history of jihad conquest. Nor was the destruction of Great Britain any part of IRA ideology or policy.