How the U.S. Could Negotiate a Successful Peace Agreement

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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:

  • Understand that it’s more important to solve the conflict than to be “right.” In the world of conflict resolution, it doesn’t matter who is right. In fact, focusing on right and wrong stops negotiation in its tracks. “President Bush is so focused on being right in the situation that he won’t be happy unless he gets the conclusion he wants, which is our form of democracy in every nation,” says Krivis. “But is being right worth increased tensions and escalated violence? I think not. For the U.S. to become a consensus builder, we must focus on solving the problem and not on letting everyone know we are right.”
  • Accept cross-cultural differences. “To be an effective mediator the U.S. must realize that our form of democracy simply will not work in the Middle East,” says Krivis. “It’s simply incompatible with their highly religious environment. When the U.S. tries to force its way of life on the region, it succeeds only in causing more of a rift between itself and the Arab countries of the region. Our leaders must recognize that every nation has its own culture and that the same definition of democracy won’t work in all of those cultures.”
  • Invite “the other side” to the table. A basic tenet of mediation is that people must be able to tell their story-and be heard-before they are open to resolving a conflict. If a party in a negotiation isn’t allowed to express their point of view, they can come only from an emotional position, not one that is receptive to problem solving. “The U.S. shouldn’t recognize terrorist groups,” explains Krivis. “But we should let these groups express their point of view. We should hear them out. Once their point of view is recognized and acknowledged, they are forced to lay out to the world their ideology and the reasons behind it, and are thus more likely to temper their attitudes. It is then that true negotiation can begin.”
  • When everyone is at the table, creative solutions can emerge to move the negotiation along. In any negotiation the mediator studies behavior patterns of the parties and “breaks their mold.” As Krivis discusses in Improvisational Negotiation, one way to do so is by “editing the script” to help people see their situation in a different light. Generally, the mediator will try to get the disputing party to retell their story about the dispute as a positive, forward-looking construction. “Once the U.S., Israel, and leaders of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are at the negotiation table, U.S. leaders must recognize that they may not have enough credibility with these groups to lead the negotiation the whole way,” says Krivis. “The U.S. should ‘edit the script’ by allowing a leader such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, who has demonstrated an ability to have peaceful relationships with all countries in the region, to lead the negotiation and put pressure on both sides to end the violence. Middle East representatives may not be receptive to any suggestions the U.S. makes, but perhaps they would listen to a country like Jordan that shares their religious beliefs.”
  • If we get them to the table and they won’t budge, then it’s time to “put them in a box.” Yes, says Krivis, isolating the parties is a common mediation technique, but the U.S. is using it at the wrong time. In multiparty conflicts, there is often one person who insists on taking a hard line approach, refusing to compromise, shooting down every solution that’s presented, and holding out for what he or she wants. Right now all the parties are holding out for what they want, including the U.S. “The U.S. is trying to isolate before negotiations have even opened,” says Krivis. “That approach is causing the groups to use violence and war to get the acknowledgment that they want. When negotiations have opened, if the groups continue to rebel against the process, isolation may be used to create movement. The uncompromising party will want to be a part of the discussion so they can represent their own concerns and interests.”

    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.”

    IMPROVISATIONAL NEGOTIATION:

    A Mediator’s Stories of Conflict about Love, Money, Anger-and the Strategies That Resolved Them

    By Jeffrey Krivis

    ISBN: 0787980382

    Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint; 2006

    For the convenience of your readers, please include the following in your review: Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint books are available at your local bookstore or by calling 1-800-225-5945. In Canada, call 1-800-567-4797. For the latest on what’s happening at Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, check out our Web site at www.josseybass.com.

    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.

  • Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze Daily News and other online newspapers. He prefers to edit, rather than write, but sometimes an issue rears it’s head and makes him start pounding the keyboard. Alan has a fascination with making video and video editing, so watch out if he points his Canon 7d in your direction.