Is Negotiation Still the Solution in the Middle East?

After the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a prominent Hamas leader, on March 22nd, (aged about 66) at the hand of the Israel military and the resultant further escalation of violence, one can rightfully pose the question: “Does negotiation still provide any solution in this crisis”?

The Power of ‘Weakness’

“Death threats do not frighten us, we are in search of martyrdom,” declared Sheikh Ahmed Yassin a couple of months ago after Israel’s deputy defense minister had named him “marked for death”. On Monday, he was killed by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters as he emerged in his wheelchair from dawn prayers in Gaza City. This frail, half-blind, quadriplegic, man of God, had inspired many young Palestinians to strap explosives to their bodies, and commit a religious suicide, taking with them as many Israelis as they could. In the name of that martyrdom.

Suicide bombs, Sheikh Yassin would have argued, are the weapons of the weak; the Palestinians’ counter to Israel’s tanks.

Is this the Point of Realization?

One thing is certain; the violence has escalated to a point where few of us will even notice a speck of light in the tunnel. Yet, this is often the point where solutions could be at their nearest.

Admittedly, any solution would depend on the vision and ability to make bold moves from both sides. We have seen it happen in South Africa. We know that there is a price to a negotiated solution. Just like in South Africa the price lies in drastic changes in attitude, in concessions you never thought possible, in acceptance of neighbours you didn’t like before, in having less power, in knowing others, although different and less privileged, having the same legal rights and in accepting that others religious and political opinions may be different to yours.

The price of war, though, is significantly more and will surely last longer. It will be paid in many more lives on both sides, in feelings of revenge for generations to come, in floods of tears and in economic destruction and even more distrust and hate.

The vision and willingness to negotiate with commitment and dedication will require, in practice, at least Five basic steps:

1. Expressing the willingness.

2. Put processes together informally or formally that will make negotiation and the conditions thereof a reality and stick to your word (trust).

3. Explore and search and search again for common ground!

4. Put your differences (regardless of their emotionality and regardless of violent and painful attempts to derail the process) aside initially.

5. Try to involve the most extreme. Especially in ‘joint’ problem solving sessions, if possible.


Looking at the problems of the Middle East at a distance, is of course an easy and naive science, but let us, just for an academic exercise, look at the various levers and concessions that exist. And these are powerful tools that could bring about significant reciprocity if used correctly. Superficially, for example:

1. Israel can concede on the 70km wall, The Palestinians can concede on suicide bombings.

2. Israel has money and access to more from the USA. The Palestinians have poverty and unemployment.

3. Israel has military power, but low moral ground, The Palestinians has less power but high moral ground.

4. Israel have occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians will possibly view serious concessions there as important.

Some signs of Hope?

Sill, the Sheikh’s killing must not obscure the negotiated solution as a prospect (which most Israelis and Palestinians surely accept in principle). If only enough of them could agree on how to make it a reality.

Yet whatever the moral and short-term tactical justification for the assassination, it was unwise. Let’s hope the leaders will realize: We have reached a point of parity. There is only one way left; either negotiate or pay the price of even worse consequences world wide.


Manie Spoelstra

Professor Manie Spoelstra has published numerous articles and books on negotiation, general management, strategy formulation and participative management, and has often consulted to many leading companies on these topics. By regularly attending advanced seminars at institutions such as the Harvard Center for Management Research in Boston and the Stanford Business… MORE >

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