Mediating the Middle East: How the U.S. Could Negotiate a Successful Peace Agreement
With new reports of violence coming in every day, a sustainable peace in the region is looking more and more out of reach. Mediator Jeff Krivis says we shouldn’t give up on peace for the region and the U.S. may be the country to help bring it to fruition.
Is peace in the Middle East possible? Right now it’s not looking good. As war rages on in Lebanon and Israel, the very phrase – “peace in the Middle East” – sounds more and more like wishful thinking. Indeed, some experts say the violence in the region could spark World War III. And yet, conflict mediator Jeffrey Krivis says peace in the region is not a lost cause. His prescription? The U.S. should stop taking such a hard-line stance and become a better mediator.
“Peace won’t come to the Middle East if the U.S. continues to act like it is taking sides and attempts to force democracy on the Arab nations,” says Krivis, author of the new book Improvisational Negotiation: A Mediator’s Stories of Conflict about Love, Money, Anger-and the Strategies That Resolved Them (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2006, ISBN: 0-7879-8038-2). “The patriarchal, no-negotiation approach our government is taking simply isn’t working. If anything, it has caused tensions to escalate.”
Krivis, who views the subject through the lens of a professional mediator who resolves conflicts for a living, says the U.S. is making a classic mistake. We are isolating the groups we deem “the bad guys” and trying to force them to do things our way. When we box them in, they have no choice but to explode the box, creating more animosity between ourselves and them and within the region itself.
“Anyone who studies human behavior knows that this isn’t a good approach to conflict resolution,” says Krivis. “In fact, it’s a very destructive approach. If you tell your teenage daughter she has to stay home while her friends are going out, chances are she will find some way to rebel. This is a perfect analogy for how the U.S. is handling the situation in the Middle East. We’ve set ourselves up as the parents, and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are the rebellious teenagers. We are trying to keep them in their rooms, and they are literally blasting their way out.”
If it’s common knowledge that the hard-line approach doesn’t work, why do our leaders persist in using it? Krivis says there are two reasons. First, it does work in the short-term-but only in the short-term. Using military action to overthrow an undesirable government in Iraq ended Hussein’s violent regime, but it led to a civil war in Iraq after the U.S. form of democracy wasn’t wholly embraced by the citizens of the country.
Second, political leaders tend to look for fast results. Presidents have only four to eight years to make their mark. So, they take short-term actions, make a decision, and stick with it. The approach may be successful while they are in power, but short-term actions tend to break down, leaving the next leader to pick up the pieces.
“The U.S. should realize that negotiation is a process,” says Krivis. “No one can get from A to Z in one step. When you short circuit the process, you can’t expect to get positive results. In the case of the Middle East, no one is truly listening to what the people have to say, so they get attention through violence. The U.S. refuses to negotiate until the groups do what we want them to do. So we end up in a stalemate, with violence continuing, because we can never get the ball rolling toward a successful negotiation.”
He adds that the first step the U.S. must take is to assume a different role, preferably one with a neutral overtone. That means we must give up our patriarchal ways. “The U.S. can’t be viewed as a credible mediator if it is invading countries in the region,” says Krivis. “At this point, we are too involved in the conflict in Iraq to help mediate a solution in that part of the region. But there may still be a chance for us to successfully mediate negotiations between Israel and other Arab nations.”
Here are a few more ways Krivis says the U.S. could become a better mediator in this difficult conflict:
When a mediator takes sides in a conflict, the negotiation is dead in the water, says Krivis. And true negotiation between Israel and the rest of the Middle East has been dead for a long time.
“Right now the U.S. wants Israel to take aggressive action,” says Krivis. “We want them to impose their point of view on the countries because it is the closest thing to our point of view. To be an effective mediator in the Middle East, the U.S. must stop taking sides and listen to the points of view of both the Arabs and the Israelis. Until we stop imposing our way of life on the region and start listening to its leaders-even if we disagree with them-fighting in the region will continue.
“Right now, lacking the proper mediation skills, the best the U.S. can hope for is a cease fire,” he adds. “The region needs more than just a temporary halt in violence. It needs lasting peace, and getting the region’s leaders to the negotiation table is the only way to accomplish that. Mediation is a powerful tool with limitless outcomes . . . and it’s about time we gave it a try.”
A Mediator’s Stories of Conflict about Love, Money, Anger-and the Strategies That Resolved Them
By Jeffrey Krivis
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint; 2006
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Jeffrey Krivis has been a successful mediator and a pioneer in the field for sixteen years and has served as the president of the International Academy of Mediators and the Southern California Mediation Association. Krivis is on the board of visitors of Pepperdine Law School and serves as an adjunct professor of law at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. In 1993 he received the Dispute Resolution Lawyer of the Year Award. Contact him at his website, www.firstmediation.com.