Many of us remember the dramatic 1993 handshake in the White House Rose Garden between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat celebrating their historic Accord. Subsequent events, including the withdrawal by the PLO from the Accord in 1994 and the assassination of Rabin in 1995, effectively relegated that agreement to a footnote in history. Yet it remains a monument to peace in the deadly game which has played out for over a half century between Israel and Palestine. The Accord negotiations provide object lessons both in the mediator’s fine art of coaxing reluctant parties to the table and keeping them coming back for more, despite overwhelming issues of identity and values.
The previously untold story of the months of secret on-again, off-again back-channel meetings leading up to the Accord is the subject of the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers, currently playing at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City. (References herein are to the published script, J.T. Rogers, Oslo, Theater Communications Group, New York, 2017). That the Israeli-PLO deal came together at all was startling to the world in 1993 and is so even today. How the deal came together, however, is particularly fascinating for dispute resolvers, who will recognize the basic elements of facilitative mediation interwoven in the play. The facilitators, Terje Larsen, a Norwegian academic, and his wife Mona Juul, a mid level diplomat in the Norwegian Foreign Office essentially shepherded the negotiations from beginning to end by intuitively trusting their sense of what the facilitative process required.
Once the negotiation sessions in Oslo were underway, which would not have even occurred without the vision and tenacity of Terje and Mona, the couple continued to skillfully shepherd the parties through one crisis after another. Among other things, they always maintained strict confidentiality of the fact of the meetings themselves, kept the parties conversational when outside of the negotiation room, were unquestionably neutral and sustained them with food and drink. In fact, neither Terje nor Mona, by their own decision, ever physically entered the formal negotiation room itself, consciously leaving that space to the parties.
What the Larsen-Juul team did was mediation in the highest sense. At the outset of the talks, between the adversaries there was clear hostility. Critical to progress in emotionally laden negotiations is the ability to develop a level of trust between the parties for each other and the mediator. Trust can't be artificially constructed, depending fundamentally on a feeling of shared vulnerability. Without the couple's vigilant protection of an informal, safe and respectful atmosphere, the trust of the opposing negotiators would not have developed. Without that trust, neither side would have allowed themselves the freedom to stretch beyond their comfort zones to try and understand or reach to meet their antagonist's underlying interests.
The success of Oslo would not have occurred without Terje and Mona's management of the tools of facilitative dispute resolution. The secret of facilitating with intransigent parties is rarely to be found in taking on the role of the wise elder devising a pragmatic settlement toward which the disputing parties are guided, through cajoling, reasoning and the suggestion of pragmatic compromises. Those techniques can arguably be effective in the settlement of commercial litigation, but can get bogged down in disputes that are highly emotional or values-driven. In Oslo, the expertise of the facilitators lay primarily in reliance on the skills of listening, maintaining a safe space, encouraging the disclosure of underlying interests and keeping out of the parties' way. Keeping true to their role by the Terje - Mona team was demanding and exhausting. Their humility and unflappability in the face of angry and frustrated parties sounding off to them were more helpful to progress than would have been trying to intervene in the dance of the parties, even with what may have seemed to be the most clever of solutions.
The deal-making of Oslo would present a difficult scenario for any mediator, due, among other things to perceived value and culture differences between the two sides. One surprising reflection of an Israeli representative was that, prior to this negotiation, he had never even met a member of the PLO (p. 63), and, similarly, the PLO Finance Minister confided that he “had never met an Israeli. Face-to-face” (p.25). Underneath their national identities, however, and their initial stereotypic descriptions of their counterparts, the Oslo negotiators on both sides were relatively privileged in the hierarchy of their respective societies, sharing a number of common values, conveyed subtly in the play by their enjoyment of similar political humor, good food, expensive whiskey and a somewhat subdued macho behavior toward Mona and the few other women occasionally on stage. In an informal living room over waffles and Scotch, Terje and Mona kindled a spark of trust and connection among the adversarial negotiators, leading, in some cases to continuing friendships, even outlasting the Accord itself
The Oslo negotiations, although historically unique and culturally and emotionally complex, demonstrate specific fundamental mediation principles, used daily in dispute negotiations, from community and commercial to family and international disputes, including :
- Party self-determination.
After convening, Terje’s primary role was keeping the parties at the table. Mona's reminding him of the ethical limits of his mediator role gives the audience insight into a facilitator’s frequent inner struggle to resist becoming more involved in solving the parties’ problem in the interest of “closing the deal”. Mona's several strict admonitions to Terje as to his role kept him from straying beyond the ethical boundaries of mediator’s unbiased neutrality.
As J.T. Rogers in his introduction to the script states, "in the middle of endless bloodshed and hatred, members of the Israeli Government and the PLO chose to sit across from their enemies and see them as human beings. Each side listened to the other and was permanently changed by that listening." ( p. xiv)) .
The power of listening shows up repeatedly in the play. One interesting exchange between adversaries related to a discussion as to why the ongoing main channel formal US-sponsored Israeli / Palestinian talks going on at the same time were apparently going nowhere. The PLO representative describes those talks to his Israeli counterpart, both academics, as "The dialogue of the deaf. Talk at, never to. Never listening" The Israeli representative responds "I agree". The two academics, having acknowledged a shared point of view, begin talking shop about the problems of regional economic development, resulting in the Israeli academic asking if the other would read his latest paper and give him "professional feedback". PLO academic "I would be honored" (p.26). A small brick in the house of trust being constructed.
- Reframing :
Mediators are skilled in restating the wording of one party’s harshly delivered message, by repeating the essence in more neutral words. In one scene Terje holds two simultaneous telephone conversations, one with the Israelis and one with the PLO. On the one line the PLO is demanding to know from the Israelis whether Yitzak Rabin himself (code worded, the “Grandfather’), has authorized these negotiations. The Israelis, on their line give Terje a vague response which is relayed to the PLO on the other line. The audience can hear an angry muffled voice from the PLO line expressing, in the author's stage directions, "rage [that] is volcanic". After the PLO representative hangs up, Terje, in a shaky, but clear reframe relayed the message to the Israelis on the other line : "They say that's fine, no problem, talk soon." (p. 15)
- Resolving easier agenda items first.
Terje describes the process as "gradualism", contrasting it with his description of a traditional international negotiation style of "totalism" with rigid rules and impersonal procedure while "all issues of disagreement are placed on the table"(p.18). As he explains [ the gradualism model], focuses "on a single issue of contention; resolve it, then move on to the next single issue as they gradually build a bond of trust" (id). It is similarly a principle of Mediation 101 that mediators encourage the parties to build an agenda and then address each agenda issue in turn, starting, if possible, with the easier ones.
- Remain neutral.
After Mona tells the PLO representative that he doesn't need once again to give her his standard speech with examples of Israeli aggression, the PLO rep says "Of course. You are on our side" Mona responds "And theirs." (p.23)
- Let the parties resolve the dispute.
At one point in the drama, during a pause in the negotiations, as outside political events threaten to disrupt the talks, Terje speaks privately to Mona of getting the talks back on track by ”improvising” and that Mona needs to "trust" him. Mona, sensing that Terje is thinking of becoming more involved in shaping a solution than a facilitator should, stops such contemplation in its tracks. Mona : "Whatever happens between them, we cannot interfere. Our behavior must be beyond reproach. If we are seen--by anyone--as meddling, as favoring one side over the other" Terje (chagrined) : "Darling, I would never do such a thing" Mona : "Then say it. You will facilitate, and facilitate only. Say it. " Terje: "I will facilitate. Only"(p.32).
- Ground rules.
Terje in exercising his mediator role in suggesting ground rules says : " [The unbreakable rule] "in that room, when that door is closed, you will converse. Disagree. Worse. But when we are out here we will share our meals, talk of our families, and light the fire..........For it is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we really are" (p.33). The disputing parties, hesitatingly, agree to the ground rule, probably the most important intervention of Terje in the entire negotiation. The rule discouraged heated negotiations from spilling out of the formal negotiation room into the living room, which would likely keep the negotiators in their positions and hinder the development of personal relationships.
- Party trust in the honesty of the mediator .
When the Norwegian Foreign Office wanted to replace Terje with a high level professional diplomat, the PLO minister wouldn't hear of it, saying "if we are to succeed, it must be he. For this one speaks truth to both sides. He does not lie"(p.52)
- Mediator humility.
As Terje became upset that he and Mona had not been seated with dignitaries at the official White House signing of the Accord, she reminds him "Terje. It's not about you"(p. 113)
In Oslo, confidentiality of the talks themselves was an essential element of the negotiation-- a leak to the press would likely doom the exercise. Elaborate travel arrangements and cover stories were sustained primarily by Mona, to allow each party to participate without outside interference. A hallmark of all mediations is the commitment of the parties to each other and from the mediator that the substance of what is discussed is held in confidence. Normally, this applies to the use of any information regarding the mediation in a court proceeding, but in this case the commitment of each side was expanded to a full information blackout.
- Authority to negotiate.
Repeatedly during the play, questions from both sides arise as to whether the other side's representatives have the authority to negotiate. It is a fundamental principle of mediation that the extent of negotiating authority of each side's representative bedisclosed. Besides affecting the good faith of each side, not having the right person at the table to negotiate is a major reason why many mediations of all kinds do not resolve at the negotiation table. In Oslo, as the negotiations became more advanced in later rounds, some of the negotiators at the table were replaced by higher level diplomats, assuring negotiating authority.
Even though subsequent political events could be viewed as having brought the parties back to square one, this 1993 attempt to bring adversaries together should not be seen as wholly unsuccessful. The Accord was the first agreement accepting the concept of legitimization by each other of the State of Israel and Palestine. It broke the previous mold of expectations and opened the door to a Jordanian-Israeli agreement soon after. One powerful lesson of the play for dispute resolvers is the dramatic demonstration of the power inherent in skilled and committed neutrals to assist disputing parties by fostering an atmosphere of respect and trust while staying within their ethical roles as neutrals.