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.

Moreover, what scenarios and strategies may work on the corporate battlefield, the initial proving ground of the PON, may prove ultimately counterproductive in Middle East negotiations. For example, in virtually every phase of the Oslo process, from the Jericho Agreement of 1993 to the ill-fated Camp David talks of 2000 and the subsequent Taba talks the next year, Israel proposed and agreed to specific, tangible obligations easily benchmarked and verified: Completed in May 1994, Oslo's first mutually signed phase required Israel to withdraw its forces from Gaza and Jericho by a date certain, which she complied with in a matter of months. For their part, as the agreement stated, "The Palestinians will act to prevent terror against Israelis in the areas under their control."

The absence of Israeli military and police units is instantly verifiable, while the condition to "act" to prevent terror can be -- and, in hindsight, was -- subjectively appraised and verified.

Transfer of authority to the Palestinians was shifted in a variety of spheres from education, electricity, water, and sewage to even nature reserves and archaeology. Compliance issues such as weapons confiscation and limitation of PA armed forces were mostly overlooked in the interests of moving the final status talks along.

And so, the pattern for the next eight years of ill-fated accords was set. Israel, for the most part, would implement and abide by concrete and date-specific withdrawals and transfers while the Palestinians were ostensibly required to demonstrate willingness and (rarely implemented) action to prevent terror. Suicide bombings began within Israel in April 1994 in Afula and Hadera, with virtually no action taken by the Palestinian Authority. The very first violation on the part of Palestinians regarding terror attacks should have been enough to abrogate -- or at least delay -- the accords, but, as we know now, incredible leeway was given not only by the international community to the PLO, but, remarkably, by Israel itself. Only when the violations became so egregious as to verge on existential threats -- as it did in the massive civilian bus bombings and suicide bombings in 1996, 1998, and 2002 -- was Israel forced to act. Even during the largest incursion, Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, following the Passover massacre in Netanya, it was made clear that the purpose of the action was not to reoccupy areas of the West Bank but to "catch and arrest terrorists and, primarily, their dispatchers and those who finance and support them; to confiscate weapons intended to be used against Israeli citizens; to expose and destroy facilities and explosives, laboratories, weapons production factories, and secret installations."

In the beginning of May of that year, a month after the operation began, Israeli troops began to withdraw from Nablus and Jenin.

Guided by the principle of "graduality," in Mr. Taub's words, the negotiations were basically divided between immediate practical issues and permanent status issues, the latter being the more difficult process focusing on the inflammatory subjects of Jerusalem, refugees, and border demarcations. Along the way to the ultimate agreement were to be CBMs (confidence building measures), again with concrete steps undertaken by Israel while more intangible commitments were to be "demonstrated" by the Palestinians. Taub likened these CBMs ideally to a spiral upward, but conceded that the 1990s resulted in a downward spiral, assigning blame to an amorphous "we," presumably meted out to both sides.

As the history of "non-implemented agreements" grew during the 1990s, according to Taub, each side felt the need to "cushion" itself from anticipated failure by assuming more and more rigid positions. It was only at the end of his talk, in relating his current work as Israeli head of the Culture of Peace Project along with the PLO, that he suggested that the underlying, pervasive culture of rejection and demonization of Israel and Jews through Palestinian textbooks, preaching, and the media corroded the Oslo process at every stage.

Despite the record of failure during the 1990s negotiations, Taub was able to look back at the debacle with some irony, noting that out of frustration both teams felt the comfort of "returning to the negotiating failures of the past."

One of the directors of Harvard's PON, Jim Sebenius, who introduced Mr. Taub, is co-author of the influential book 3D Negotiations: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals. In one chapter, he underscores the importance of the "spirit of the deal" or what he terms "the social contract" (with amended credit to Rousseau), by which he means a shared understanding of the fundamental culture and objectives of each side, or "expectations held by two or more negotiating parties about their agreement." Perhaps no other part of Sebenius' work when applied to international conflicts is more important than this observation.

What the failure of Oslo suggests in terms of the art and science of negotiation is that absent an underlying understanding of the other side's core positions and motives, no application of sophisticated bargaining tools will lead to a durable peace. The road to hell may well be paved with good negotiations.