PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Simulating the Arab-Israeli conflict: to what ends?

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Last month The Forward published two articles dealing with Arab-Jewish dialogue, and the particular contribution of negotiation simulations in promoting empathy and understanding. The first, by Sam Kestenbaum, describes a negotiation simulation at CUNY’s Queen’s College:

On a recent afternoon in Queens, Secretary of State John Kerry sat with Israeli and Palestinian representatives, chatting amiably. “It’s great to see you two side by side,” Kerry said to the delegates. “Now, have we agreed about these land swaps?”

The Israeli and Palestinian smiled and nodded — a historic agreement had been reached; it seemed there might be an end to the crippling decades long stalemated conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

But then the class period ended.

John Kerry, peeling off a nametag, introduced herself as Rachel Olshin, a Jewish student at Queens College. The Israeli delegate revealed herself as a young Muslim named Amer Ashraf. The Palestinian delegate was a Jew and onetime soldier in the Israeli army, named Jeremy Pitts. The three students were participating in a semester-long simulated peace process at City University of New York’s Queens College, one of a number of measures taken on that campus to ease religious and political tensions.

Around 2005, Rosenblum developed a curriculum and course called “America and Middle East: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds.” The next years saw slightly different iterations, culminating in the conflict-resolution simulations.

McGee, who has now taken over Rosenblum’s class, said students are often uncomfortable with the material. And that’s the point. They’re asked to assume characters from “the other side” of where they are coming from.

Students broke up into small groups in different parts of the classroom, peering over maps of the region. Some had difficulty finding Gaza and Tel Aviv on the map. One student struggled to pronounce Bahrain and Kuwait correctly; a young woman in a hijab leaned over to correct her.

A whole range of characters was cast: Amos Yadlin, IDF military attaché to Washington; Salaam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority; Samantha Powers, United States ambassador to the United Nations, and Turki Al-Faisal, from the Saudi royal family.

If a character is simply beyond the pale for a given student — for example, taking on the role of a Hamas representative, or an Israeli settler — McGee will let that character take a more backseat role. One student confided in a private message to McGee earlier this semester, “It’s really important for me to understand the Palestinians, but I’m terrified.”

The other piece, by David Makovsky and Gaith al-Omari, describes a negotiation simulation at the University of California Santa Barbara:

…the most unique feature of our UCSB program is the mock negotiation exercise, where we ask students who self-identify as pro-Israel to play the role of Palestinian negotiators and vice versa. It’s all too common in such a highly emotive conflict for partisans to dismiss the views of the other as mere posturing or as unfounded propaganda. Rather than simply spelling out the various parties’ positions to the students, we challenge these students to articulate the logic and sets of interests that lead each side to adopt its position.

This is not an emotionally easy process for students who feel a strong affinity to one side. As facilitators, we can see in the students’ facial expressions and body language clear signs that many of them struggle to argue for the very same positions they have grown accustomed to criticizing. So it’s important for us to ensure that they are not made to feel uncomfortable with their views or pressured to abandon them. Instead, we hope that students leave this exercise with a greater understanding that the positions of the other side are based on a set of facts, interests and narratives that need to be understood, even if they are not adopted, by anyone who seeks to end this conflict.

As the exercise progresses, we see the participants becoming more comfortable with the idea that people can have their own narratives and that often, although not always, these different narratives do not come from a place of malice. The participants begin to understand that this conflict is not a morality play, as they may hear from some of their teachers in the classroom.

In the end, we believe that the effort is worth it when students — often those who were most skeptical at the start — tell us that they leave the exercise understanding that the conflict is more complex than the bumper stickers or fliers on campus suggest it is, or that they now appreciate that both sides believe they have justice on their side. Our hope is that students will use the knowledge they gained to promote dialogue and practical forms of coexistence rather than engage in BDS or other forms of divisive, mutually delegitimizing activities.

In a sharp rejoinder, however, Natasha Gill is rather critical of the approach:

Despite what many people may believe, humanization between individuals does not resolve conflict between groups. And yet against all the hard evidence, most conflict management or simulation exercises still put this forward as their primary objective.

The Forward recently ran two articles about conflict negotiation simulations dealing with the Israel/Palestine dispute. Both mention the challenges and rewards of role-reversal, in which participants take on the part of their adversary during the course of the simulation.

But by citing the troika of dialogue and peace projects — humanizing enemies, encouraging an understanding of “the other” and developing mutual empathy — both models appear to be driven by the same unquestioned assumption that has ushered Palestine/Israel reconciliation movements into oblivion: that there is a relationship between mutual understanding among individuals and the end of violence or the achievement of peace between groups or nations.

As one of the first to devise Israel/Palestine role reversal negotiations over a decade ago, inspired and trained by Barnard College historian Mark Carnes’s highly successful “Reacting to the Past” method, I have found that the emphasis on dialogue, empathy and humanization is misleading. In reality, the most powerful component of these modules is that they offer a unique space where adversaries can face each other without being pressured prematurely into friendship or asked to feel each other’s pain, and where their anger and hatred can be accepted, even respected.

In the end, such simulations do compel participants to better understand their adversary, but not out of any sense of moral responsibility, virtuousness or respect for “the other.” Instead, they do so in order to take stock of their own options and the realities that their own people face . As a result, participants might rethink their approach to the conflict even when they do not change their mind about their enemies’ motives, rights or actions. They’re likely to query the effectiveness of their own strategies and goals, and closely analyze whether these are achievable. And they will often recognize the beliefs of their adversaries as facts on the ground that have to be addressed, no less powerful than any that can be seen or touched.

The results of this process are quite different from those that emerge from many peace and dialogue groups — not because the latter are not meaningful for individuals, but because whereas personal encounters may open hearts and minds, participants in these programs are rarely given tools to address their adversaries within the context of the conflict itself .

And the results are certainty different from the kind of work done by advocacy groups, where intra-community debate is subject to stringent rules of censorship, and where the goal is generally to learn only enough about your enemy’s stated positions so as to design a set of counter attacks and talking points. That’s a staggeringly superficial and ineffective strategy whose only success has been to deprive otherwise intelligent individuals of the insight they need in order to be effective advocates for their own cause.

In contrast to these approaches — both of which, for different reasons, avoid a confrontation with reality — a well designed simulation plunges participants into the heart of the conflict, where they analyze in great detail the social, economic, political, territorial, diplomatic and psychological obstacles to peace, from the perspectives of all parties that have a stake in its outcome.

Natasha is well known for her work on integrative simulations to teach conflict, negotiation, and mediation, and has been a contributor here at PAXsims. Like her, I have been critical of many of the “people-to-people” initiatives that flourished in the heyday of the Arab-Israeli peace process. These typically placed too much emphasis on changing attitudes within a very small section of the grassroots while overlooking more hard-edged political and  structural challenges. That being said, I think she’s being a little unfair to the two projects described, since both clearly have student socialization as an important goal, as well as seeking to educate participants about the conflict. On campus, classroom friendships and empathy can play a powerful role in changing broader community dynamics, even if they have no impact whatsoever on the actual conflict—a point noted by the authors of both pieces.

She and I also partly disagree on the potential value of “fictional or futuristic scenarios, which can be uplifting for participants but misleading for all involved.” Certainly there are badly-designed fictional or future simulations, and understanding of current problems is usually best served by setting a simulation in the here-and-now.

Depending on what you are trying to do, however, there are sometimes very good reasons to liberate participants from the tyranny of the present if you are trying to identify future challenges or develop innovative approaches. This is a point that Sean McMahon and Chris Miller have made from a critical studies perspective. At the other end of the spectrum, many professional national security simulations utilize such settings because they allow you to set initial conditions in a way that best suits analytical or experimental needs.

Indeed, the most successful and influential Arab-Israeli simulation I have ever been involved in—one that led directly to several international meetings attended by diplomats and technical experts, briefings in multiple national capitals, and two follow-up simulations in direct support of on-going negotiations—was set in a future scenario rather than a current one, and this setting was critical to its success. It was certainly realistic and engaging enough that we had to stop one group of participants from consulting their (real-life) national leader’s office to obtain (simulated) negotiation instructions.

Taken together, the pieces by Kestenbaum, Makovsky and al-Omari—together with Gill’s critique— raise some valuable questions about how we run simulations, to what purpose and with what effects, and how greater understanding might best contribute to conflict resolution.

h/t Neil Caplan 

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