Comments: The Middle East: Without A Middle

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Alan , Pocono Pines PA   02/15/11
Dorit, pt. 2
Many disputes, especially long-lasting intractable ones in the Middle East revolve around differential and often self-serving interpretations of history… history that is usually highly resistant to facts supplied by adversaries and subject to reactive devaluation. Even facts supplied by a “neutral” can be discounted. Even worse, when neutrals supply what they consider fact, they may lose ability to facilitate effectively. Like your professor friend who was critiqued for showing “anti Israeli” films in his class, I was recently attacked by both sides in a local dispute for inaccurately summarizing an existing conflict. Neither side wanted objective analysis; they wanted support for their views and discrediting of their opposition. Bernie Mayer has made the related point that mediation is not a panacea for all disputes in “Beyond Neutrality”. Some disputants want a brand of “justice” more properly labeled “vengeance”. Your goal of creating a middle ground is admirable, but I doubt that such a middle ground can be created by adopting one side’s version of history no matter how accurate and “right” that side is. Nor can middle ground be easily created by justifying motives of either side at the expense of the other. However some of our standard mediation tools could benefit the parties: n encouraging each group to try to understand the history, perceptions, feelings etc. of the other group even though they do not agree—emphasizing empathy as a means of starting to understand and negotiate. n Identifying interests, needs, and goals of each group even if the interests are not compatible. n Generating and considering options that might lead to some degree of mutual satisfaction, and then asking the parties to evaluate their feasibility, implementation, and potential for acceptance by main actors. n While acknowledging the real impacts of contextual history, asking parties to evaluate options from the present. “ What can we do now? “ The moving finger having writ moves on….” Because history is irreversible, does not mean that remedies do not exist; however the more that actions, especially those seen as unjust, are time-distant, the less likely they are to be reversed. For example, the probability for present day African Americans to receive reparations is miniscule; however advocacy for equal access to current privilege is an attainable goal The “right of return “ for displaced Arabs may fall in the distant past category especially considering the potential impact on Israeli demography. Middle ground is useful if identified by the parties, not the mediator. Getting stuck in history is a dominant and unproductive theme in most entrenched international conflict including this one, but helping parties to get unstuck and deal with the present and future is an extremely difficult task, even for a mediator perceived as a true neutral. Advocacy by mediators, in their role as mediator, might be well restricted to advocacy for the mediation process itself e.g. Mediators Beyond Borders is currently advocating for insertion of mediation language and process in the proposed UN Climate Change treaty, but they are not engaged in the actual mediation of climate conflicts. Lastly, much of Howard Gadlin’s 2/8/11 interesting interview with Robert Benjamin here on is very relevant. Gadlin focuses on the potential superiority of mediation and neutral facilitation over advocacy in achieving justice and social progress. Well worth a view at:

Alan , Pocono Pines PA   02/15/11
Dorit, pt 1
Dorit: Thanks for your passionate, mostly historical, analysis of why there is little real peace in the Middle East among Israelis and Palestinians. Although you provide a current salient example of an unbalanced mediation table, the scenario you describe also exists many places in the world of conflict -- including in more mundane mediations between individual disputants. For some mediators, neutrality must be maintained at any cost with the main or only remedy for bias being recusal. Other mediators believe that they can facilitate dialog effectively if their behavior is perceived as neutral even if they harbor unexpressed bias. Still others, possibly including you, believe that it could be part of the mediator role to attempt table balancing by making parties aware of facts -- in this case, historical facts. My view is that effective facilitation indeed requires behavior that is perceived as neutral by the parties. But because mediators are humans living in the same world as parties, I recommend that mediators who come to view one party as disadvantaged or another as manipulative and powerful might consider changing hats and instead advocating to support the disadvantaged party or group. There is nothing shameful about advocacy, consulting, or support, but it is NOT mediation. Similarly, many mediators refuse to accept cases that include domestic violence because they believe that the victims cannot negotiate as equals, and/or that the mediation process may expose victims to additional danger. More generally, some ”mediation philosophers” are concerned about whether mediated agreements result in fairness or justice, and whether or not mediators must maintain neutrality. For example, see Joseph Stulberg on this somewhat moral issue.

, Boston MA   01/10/11
Israel: a biased view
There is so much bias and distortion in this article, it is hard to know where to begin to correct it. The fact remains that Israel is an island of freedom in a region of brutal dictatorships. If you're a woman, a Christian, a homosexual, and even an Arab, there is no place in the Mideast where you have more rights (or any rights at all) than in Israel.

Jonathan Reitman, Brunswick ME     01/02/11
so sad, so true
Dorit-- Thank you for your heartbreaking but accurate analysis of the polarity that precludes true dialogue (as Ken notes in his comment). I was taken by your comment that mediators are "reticent to engage in advocacy strategies as they fear losing their “neutrality” status, but what else can we do?" We need not even be engaged in advocacy activities to be accused of losing our neutrality, or with being an advocate for "the other." In my conflict resolution courses I have often shown movies, that are by ANY fair standard truly objective in their reporting of the situation, and its tragic impact on human lives. Yet I have had students walk out in protest, or complain to the dean, or shout down guests who were portrayed in the movie, because of the movie's alleged anti-Israeli bias. There is very little opportunity to explore common ground. But to answer your question directly, I think mediators do what we always do: keep on modeling the possibilities for transforming dialogue, listening deeply to those who are offended, and keep compassionately reminding everyone who will listen that the joint Israeli-Palestinian narrative is filled with victims and injustice on all sides. In other words, we provide the middle when the parties can't.

kenneth cloke, santa monica ca   01/02/11
This is an excellent article Dorit, thank you for posting it. One of the difficulties in even talking among ourselves about mediating in the middle east is that the rhetoric and language on both sides immediately leaps to a place where listening and dialogue are precluded and impossible, where the cycle of accusation, counter-accusation and defense become self-perpetuating. What we want instead is stories, like the ones you tell about your family; stories that are human, real and undeniable, that elicit a deep form of empathy and compassion that is not viewed as a form of surrender. What we want is not the superficial middle of formal compromise, but the deeper middle that marks the beginning of genuine recognition, which is essential for collaboration.

Michael , Milwaukee WI   12/28/10
Fact check
Israel is the same as other settler colonizing nations? Were there British in America or India before they colonized them? Were there Dutch in Indonesia before conolization? Jews have lived in Israel for nearly 4 millenia. The Romans conquered Israel and destroyed the second temple, but they never expelled all of the Jews. Before the 1960s, no one called themselves Palestinians. Arabs and Muslims lived throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but they never established a nation in what is now Israel. There are 21 Arab countries in the world, all predominantly Muslim. What is wrong with one small predominantly Jewish nation? I agree there must be a middle common ground, but it cannot start with a refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist.