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Unequal Partners Can’t Negotiate

By Paul Duffill
Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, the University of Sydney

Opponents of UN recognition of Palestine want the parties to sit down and talk it out. Will this be effective? Paul Duffill on the conditions necessary for real negotiation to take place

Over the past two weeks the international media have made much of the debate over resumption of negotiations between parties of the Palestine-Israel conflict — as opposed to United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.

Experience and research in international negotiation and dialogue tells us two things about this debate: current efforts at urging parties back to negotiation will not come to much; and more importantly, something can be done about it.

The Oslo peace process kicked off in January 1993, and aimed to reach a Permanent Status Agreement and end the conflict. Neither of these goals have been achieved.

The Australian government, like other many other governments, assumes that, after almost 20 years of failed negotiations, the best and only option available is to urge the Israeli and Palestinian parties to sit down one more time and try to talk themselves out of the conflict. This approach sets up negotiation and dialogue as some sort of magical, mystical remedy which might just work this time after so many years of failure.

The flaws in this argument are beginning to appear to many nations as they evaluate how they should respond to proposals for United Nations recognition of Palestine. A recent BBC/GlobeScan poll of 20,446 citizens in 19 countries showed that in every country polled, more people favoured UN recognition of Palestine than opposed it: globally 49 per cent back the resolution, while 21 per cent say their government should oppose it. Even US respondents, whose government has been one of the harshest critics of proposed vote on Palestinian recognition, showed more support than opposition (45 per cent support, 36 per cent oppose).

Does this show, as the official positions of some governments suggest, that support for UN recognition of Palestine is essentially “siding with Palestinians against Israel”? Indeed a number of states have labelled the decision to attempt UN recognition as “unilateral action” that should be avoided in favour of direct talks between the parties. This ignores the fact that a vote involving 193 member states of the UN at in the General Assembly — which this may come down to, if the US vetos the move in the Security Council — is about as non-unilateral as it gets.

Not according to actual experience and research in international negotiation. This tells us that UN recognition could provide much-needed support to reach a negotiated settlement — rather than replace or endanger it.

Proposals for a return to direct negotiations should learn from experience and research on the conditions necessary for successful negotiation of international conflict of this kind. And governments should not ignore these hard-won lessons if they are serious about promoting a negotiated peace to the conflict.

One of the lessons from negotiation experts is that a condition for success is relatively equal power between negotiation “partners” — so that what appears to be agreement is not actually the result of outright coercion or force. This admission should not be confused with blaming one side for the violence or singling out one group to accept “war guilt”. This need for balanced power between parties is a relational issue between particular groups: you can’t assume to know the sources of a power imbalance and barriers to peace in a given conflict until you’ve looked into what’s going on on the ground.

In the Israel-Palestine conflict there is a large power imbalance between parties. Facing up to this power imbalance should not be confused with blaming Israelis or Palestinians for the violence.

Indeed, reasons for this unequal power relationship originate from a number of the parties.

For example, President Mahmoud Abbas was elected to serve until 9 January 2009, after which he unilaterally extended his term and continues in office even after that second deadline expired. Abbas is unable to even visit parts of Palestinian territory such as Gaza under the control of rival political faction Hamas.

One party being under military occupation by the other party does not create a situation of balanced power. The illegality of the Israeli government’s military occupation of the West Bank is acknowledged by numerous sources of international law (United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 for instance).

The power asymmetry within this conflict was further illustrated by the
Palestine Papers. These are records of proceedings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators first leaked to Al-Jazeera in January this year and then widely reported in the international media. The Palestine Papers show the concessions Palestinian dialogue partners have offered to their Israeli counterparts which, when publicised, were widely rejected by the Palestinian public. Such developments do not promote lasting, sustainable peace.

Therefore research on the many cases of successful and unsuccessful international negotiation does not support an immediate resumption of negotiation between the parties. Experience does indicate that dialogue is something that could bring about a lasting resolution to the conflict, as has happened in numerous other conflicts. But it cannot be assumed that negotiation is a magical panacea without its own predictable, well researched conditions for success.

United Nations Security Council or General Assembly resolutions for the recognition of the state of Palestine may provide such an opportunity to promote the conditions of successful negotiation, by empowering Palestinian representatives to act as equal, and therefore effective, negotiation partners and provide at least some of the usual UN mechanisms which are available to other member or observer states.

Facing up to the reality of this power imbalance, and addressing it, could provide important practical support for peace. Even though it may be a long process, some sort of measurable progress would provide important momentum to counter disillusionment and to avoid regression to increased violence.

As Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University reminds us: “Dialogic encounter should always be geared toward a goal that is measurable by the layman participant, especially if he or she is a member of the group that is initiating the fighting. Otherwise it is perceived as, and perhaps is, a substitute for progress”.

The article first appeared in The New Matilda, October 5, 2011