Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 20/04/2011

Simulating Middle East peace initiatives

Track4, (who organize “simulations for students/universities, mediators, diplomats and policy makers or other professionals working in the field of conflict resolution, communities directly involved in conflict, and corporate and non-profit organizations”) conducted a simulation last week based on a possible “Obama Initiative” to address the Israel/Palestine conflict. Columnist Jonathan Freedland, who was one of the participants, has an extensive account in The Guardian today:

I spent much of last week being a Palestinian. And not just any Palestinian. I was the man charged with negotiating their future. Over the course of two full days I was Saeb Erekat, longtime (and now caretaker) negotiations chief of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, facing off against an Israeli team led by one of Binyamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants. Behind closed doors, and under the watchful eye of Barack Obama’s handpicked envoy, George Mitchell, we argued and haggled over the knottiest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – seeking to find common ground on questions of rights, refugees and recognition as well as security and sovereignty.

I succeeded in extracting from the Israelis an acceptance that the states of Palestine and Israel will be separated by a border reflecting the 1967 lines, more or less, and that Jerusalem will serve as the capital of both nations. Which I considered a rather good week’s work.

Strictly speaking, the names above should all come wrapped in quotation marks. For I was playing the role of Erekat in an elaborate simulation game – alongside a dozen or so people whose professional lives are steeped in the conflict, whether as diplomats, NGO officials, scholars or journalists, from both inside and outside the region. Participants were asked to step outside their comfort zone.

The scheme is the brainchild of an American academic, Natasha Gill, who calls it “Track 4” to distinguish it from the three more conventional tracks of diplomacy: those involving government-to-government talks, civil society, or people-to-people encounters. Her aim is not to have a “peacenik lovefest”, in which each side learns to empathise with the other, but rather to understand the dynamics, and difficulties, of the negotiations themselves.

Freedland’s column notes the way in which the simulation highlighted competing narratives of victimhood, the effects of power asymmetries, the dynamics of negotiations, and the key role of the US:

The “Palestinians” walk into the room regarding themselves as the aggrieved, injured party. They are the underdog, the occupied people, and that gives them the immediate moral high ground.

The Israelis have a narrative involving dispossession and suffering too, but it tends to relate to the past, even if it is the relatively recent past. They are unavoidably cast as the stronger party, the one that wants to hold on to what it has, the one that has to say no. What is more, the “Israelis” soon realise that their cards consist of tangible assets – starting with land – which they are being asked to give up for abstract declarations – on, for example, recognition of Israel – from people they hardly trust. This mismatch eventually feeds their resentment and makes them dig in their heels.

These were valuable lessons in themselves, but the exercise taught something much deeper. Within hours, I noticed that I was becoming fixated on scoring points rather than solving problems. I had a troublesome member of the delegation, constantly positioning himself as more radical, more faithful to the cause – reminding me of the political price I would pay if I compromised too much. This constrained me.

I also realised that the key audience was not really the Israelis across the table – it was the Americans at the head that mattered. It was their text I wanted to influence. In this context, the omission of some phrase the Israelis wanted counted as a victory: it made more sense to avoid an issue than to solve it.

If this is how I behaved after less than 24 hours, no wonder the two sides act the way they do. Gradually I became aware of the enormous gulf that separates those of us who view the conflict from afar – whether from our perch on liberal newspapers or in well-meaning thinktanks – from those who have actually to solve the problem. From this distance, the solution might seem painfully obvious: any cool-headed moderate can see where the midpoint between the two sides lies. But that is to reckon without the pressures on the negotiators within their own team, from a public opinion always ready to cry sell-out, and from the US. And that’s even before you get to the demands of the other side.

The article also highlights the important connection between role assignment and the intent of the simulation. Who plays whom should, in large part, be shaped by the point of the exercise. In this case, participants appear to have been assigned to the delegation that least accorded with their background and political preferences:

…my fellow “Palestinian” negotiators included an Israeli citizen who is a full-time advocate for his country, a senior official of a pro-Israel charity, and a top figure from the Jewish Chronicle. Representing Israel were two Palestinians – one a citizen of the US, the other a citizen of Israel – and two luminaries of London-based NGOs with long experience of the occupied territories.

Doing things in this way allows the simulator to encourage participants to reexamine their preconceptions and develop greater empathy for concerns, fears, and priorities of the “other side.” The major drawback, of course, is that teams may behave less realistically (for example, by being more willing to compromise on key issues) than would be the case if they were played by partisans sharing the ideological and political preferences of their role. Track4’s simulation seems to have rather cleverly attenuated this latter effect, however, by using experienced advisors for each side:  “both teams could call on coaches – one Israeli, one Palestinian – who had served as negotiators at high-level peace talks.” Presumably they helped anchor the behaviour of each team in the actual political and negotiating constraints faced by their real-life counterparts.

We’ll look forward to hearing more about Track4 simulations in the future.

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Also on the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israeli comedy show Eretz Nehederet offered its own simulated insights last November, in a skit based on the Angry Birds video game:

Sadly, it does rather seem to reflect the likely prospects for a negotiated peace agreement at the moment….

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