Times: Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges Point to a Way to Negotiate an End to the Arab Israeli Conflict

Wow. Talmudic analysis based on actual field work.

This op-ed article summarizes the results of simple but powerful research that recognizes that Western utilitarian assumptions may not drive cultural negotiations elsewhere in the world. Our way of thinking ("the marketplace or realpolitik") indeed may prevent us from seeing what impede our understanding of how to help resolve and negotiate the end to a conflict.

The authors simply asked the parties in the middle East which elements in a negotiation they prefer.

They gave them "deal sets" to evaluate.

Set one - both sides negotiate the pain that they need to suffer to make an agreement. The sadistic approach. Find out how much they want the enemy to suffer and then inflict the pain. Not generally our USA way of thinking.

Set two - both sides determine the gain they need to be paid to make an agreement. Americans get this kind of deal. Find out, How much do they want? Pay them off.

Set three - both sides decide what apologies and "symbolic sacred" assurances they need to make an agreement. Seems entirely impractical to us and hence we suspect whether the sides are sincere in what they say.

If you think about set three, it sort of makes sense in the context of the middle East conflict. The authors want us to look more closely at set three.

The authors don't say this in their article, but here is what I think.

This struggle has proven to be a "death match" where the combatants have vowed to stay in the ring until just one of them is left standing.

The survival of the fittest in a death match has nothing to do with pain (set one) of payoffs (set two) because the ultimate aim in the negotiation is the death of the other party.

I was trained in my Rutgers B-school course to ferret out what is the BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) for both parties in a negotiation? In this case, if one party cannot kill the other, what then would they settle for?

Apparently the answer this research has uncovered is that the stated BATNA for both sides is "sacred words" of apology and assurance.

Now with that data we can do one of two things. We can believe the research has uncovered some accurate but counter-intuitive facts about the conflict and pursue the avenue that they have mapped out, try to get the parties to agree to the BATNA. What do we have to lose if we try this?

On the other hand, we can argue that this BATNA avowed by both parties is not authentic, not sincere and not real. When both parties call for "sacred words" instead of elements from the other negotiation sets, they are telling us in fact that they have no BATNA. This is the mother of all "dirty tricks" of negotiations. Both do not expect, nor do they wish that the other party make "sacred" assurances - because both wish only to see the negotiation through to the "negotiated" end to the struggle. Tragically that would be the death of one of the parties.

I do not for a moment think that all Israelis or that all Palestinians believe that must be the end of the negotiation. Yet there is no doubt that the "death match" motif has framed the conflict for 60 years.

Urgently, we need to consider how to break out of the "death match" framework of the current conflict, how to re-frame the negotiations, how to get each side to set real goals and expectations, how to get the parties to speculate on what their BATNAs are, and thereby how to take all the "trick" elements of the "sacred" out of the mix.

Bottom line, this is indeed a wonderful and fertile report in the Times on research of great significance.
Op-Ed Contributors
How Words Could End a War

AS diplomats stitch together a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, the most depressing feature of the conflict is the sense that future fighting is inevitable. Rational calculation suggests that neither side can win these wars. The thousands of lives and billions of dollars sacrificed in fighting demonstrate the advantages of peace and coexistence; yet still both sides opt to fight.

This small territory is the world’s great symbolic knot. “Palestine is the mother of all problems” is a common refrain among people we have interviewed across the Muslim world: from Middle Eastern leaders to fighters in the remote island jungles of Indonesia; from Islamist senators in Pakistan to volunteers for martyrdom on the move from Morocco to Iraq.

Some analysts see this as a testament to the essentially religious nature of the conflict. But research we recently undertook suggests a way to go beyond that. For there is a moral logic to seemingly intractable religious and cultural disputes. These conflicts cannot be reduced to secular calculations of interest but must be dealt with on their own terms, a logic very different from the marketplace or realpolitik.

Across the world, people believe that devotion to sacred or core values that incorporate moral beliefs — like the welfare of family and country, or commitment to religion and honor — are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Our studies, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest that people will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values and will defend those values regardless of the costs.

In our research, we surveyed nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis from 2004 to 2008, questioning citizens across the political spectrum including refugees, supporters of Hamas and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. We asked them to react to hypothetical but realistic compromises in which their side would be required to give away something it valued in return for a lasting peace.

All those surveyed responded to the same set of deals. First they would be given a straight-up offer in which each side would make difficult concessions in exchange for peace; next they were given a scenario in which their side was granted an additional material incentive; and last came a proposal in which the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values.

For example, a typical set of trade-offs offered to a Palestinian might begin with this premise: Suppose the United Nations organized a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians under which Palestinians would be required to give up their right to return to their homes in Israel and there would be two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, we would sweeten the pot: in return, Western nations would give the Palestinian state $10 billion a year for 100 years. Then the symbolic concession: For its part, Israel would officially apologize for the displacement of civilians in the 1948 war

Indeed, across the political spectrum, almost everyone we surveyed rejected the initial solutions we offered — ideas that are accepted as common sense among most Westerners, like simply trading land for peace or accepting shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Why the opposition to trade-offs for peace?

Many of the respondents insisted that the values involved were sacred to them. For example, nearly half the Israeli settlers we surveyed said they would not consider trading any land in the West Bank — territory they believe was granted them by God — in exchange for peace. More than half the Palestinians considered full sovereignty over Jerusalem in the same light, and more than four-fifths felt that the “right of return” was a sacred value, too.

As for sweetening the pot, in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that using the standard approaches of “business-like negotiations” favored by Western diplomats will only backfire.

Many Westerners seem to ignore these clearly expressed “irrational” preferences, because in a sensible world they ought not to exist. Diplomats hope that peace and concrete progress on material and quality-of-life matters (electricity, water, agriculture, the economy and so on) will eventually make people forget the more heartfelt issues. But this is only a recipe for another Hundred Years’ War — progress on everyday material matters will simply heighten attention on value-laden issues of “who we are and want to be.”

Fortunately, our work also offers hints of another, more optimistic course.

Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Remarkably, our survey results were mirrored by our discussions with political leaders from both sides. For example, Mousa Abu Marzook (the deputy chairman of Hamas) said no when we proposed a trade-off for peace without granting a right of return. He became angry when we added in the idea of substantial American aid for rebuilding: “No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount.”

But when we mentioned a potential Israeli apology for 1948, he brightened: “Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that.” His response suggested that progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues, rather than the reverse.

We got a similar reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line former Israeli prime minister. We asked him whether he would seriously consider accepting a two-state solution following the 1967 borders if all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, were to recognize the right of the Jewish people to an independent state in the region. He answered, “O.K., but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations.”

Making these sorts of wholly intangible “symbolic” concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist, simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science says they may be the best way to start cutting the knot.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, John Jay College and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is the author of the forthcoming “Talking to the Enemy.” Jeremy Ginges is a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

25 January 2009


The authors of this morning's NYTimes op-ed on attitudes among Israelis and Palestinians in "How Words Could End a War", below and at
refers to their surveys between 2004-2008 without any way for readers to find the actual research upon which the op-ed is based.

Looking around the web, I found an article submitted for publication to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS] more than two years ago http://www.pnas.org/content/104/18/7357.full I also found a briefing to the National Security Council dating from a year earlier, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/whitehouse/atrannsc-042806.pdf

I think a lot of water and blood have gone under the bridge between then and now. Although the authors write in today's op-ed that their research was conducted between 2004 and 2008, I have not found any on the web more current than 2007. Further, in all the writing, I have not found any discussion of or intention to discern a trend in attitudes over this period of time. For example, have any groups of Israelis and Palestinians become more hardened or more flexible or not changed in attitudes? To me, this kind of dynamic information is as important to good survey research as the statics, and as valuable to peace initiatives. I'm surprised the National Science Foundation and others have not required this additional reporting.

The authors seem to have some good advice to offer, in particular, one recommendation, "Don't offer material incentives for other's sacred values," per "Reframing Sacred Values in Seemingly Intractable Conflicts" posted at groups.csail.mit.edu/belief-dynamics/MIT07/BobAxelrod.ppt

Therefore, I think the authors owe NYTimes' readers a followup note, especially about any trends over the past two years and precisely where to find and review their research documents.

Thank you and best wishes,

Stuart Leiderman