Israel vs. Hamas and others

As long as the Arab/Muslim tendency decides that removing Israel from the map is top of its Interests and Needs, the negotiation can go on only through explosions, not talking

Israel is under unique pressures
Charles Crawford
On 20 November 2012 10:06

Over on Twitter the other day, I spotted a plaintive Tweet to this effect: Why oh why can't #Israel and #Hamas just negotiate rather than fight?

That is a profound question. How best to answer it?

My own diplomatic career steered me well away from the Middle East in general and the Israel Question in particular. So I almost never add to the cacophony of opinion on the issues arising across the region, unless I spot something that might have relevance for other problems. In this case the underlying options for "negotiation" as between Israel and Hamas are worth exploring precisely because they cast light on how and why other difficult international negotiations work, or not.

One classic way of looking at any negotiation, big or small, is to analyse what the different parties really want. This turns out not to be quite as simple as you might think. Parties have Positions (what they say and think they want), but they also have less obvious Interests (wider and possibly mutually contradictory concerns that drive their thinking on the issue at hand) and Needs (existential concerns that need to be met for them come what may).

Skilful negotiators drill down “below" positions and start exploring those deeper interests and needs to see where people who on the face of it have quite incompatible demands may in fact find areas of common ground.

Back in Bosnia in 1997 President Izetbegovic gave me a memorable insight into how he saw negotiations for his beloved Bosniac/Muslim community. He argued that within the former Yugoslavia space itself there were some 2 million Bosniacs/Muslims but some 4 million Croats and 10 million Serbs. The Bosniacs/Muslims therefore had no room for manoeuvre – if things went disastrously wrong in a future conflict with the Serbs and Croats combined, their whole community could be effectively destroyed once and for all.

He concluded that until the Bosniacs found themselves unambiguously safe as a community, they had to stand firm on certain vital (for them) constitutional identity questions: "We cannot afford ethnic disarmament for 50 years".

That makes sense. Someone who has everything to lose (or believes that that is the case) is going to fight with frantic intensity compared to someone for whom the outcome is important but not vital.

This idea is familiar in warfare. When a retreating army finds a solid place to make a stand, it can be very difficult for the attacking army to defeat it despite having far greater resources and mobility – the defending side concentrates its effort and determination to excellent effect, precisely because its realistic choices are so drastically reduced.

The Bosniacs/Muslims in this sense are like the Israelis or Taiwanese. In each case the 'negotiation' is all about survival as such. The Israeli case is even more acute, given the experience of the Holocaust that helped create the state of Israel in the first place.

This creates a totally different negotiating context. Everything is zero-sum stark, with little scope for diplomatic drafting sleights of hand and/or ingenious ambiguities that allow rival parties to build little by little on Needs and Interests to help reconcile their sharply differing Positions.

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