Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2009, pg. 59

Waging Peace

Peace Negotiations: What Works And What Doesn’t

Professors Ilan Peleg (r) and Paul Scham discuss crucial factors for peace. Staff photo D. Hanley

Amid rumors that the Obama administration would soon move forward toward a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace agreement, Middle East Institute adjunct scholars Ilan Peleg and Paul Scham analyzed the possibilities for success at a Sept. 11 lunchtime event in Washington, DC. Peleg, a professor at Lafayette College, serves as editor-in-chief of the Israel Studies Forum. Scham is a visiting professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The two examined past negotiations to determine what has worked and what has not, both in format and substance, including both American-assisted meetings and others. Having set up a typology of 10 factors which have been crucial to previous negotiations, Peleg and Scham measured the situation today against those factors to determine the likelihood of success or failure.

Factors for a diplomatic breakthrough exist if the parties are ready to deal, Peleg said—otherwise there is little chance for progress. Parties are ready to talk if there is a “distress factor”—for instance, there may be an outside player like Iran, or a “trauma factor,” like the bloody Yom Kipper war in 1973, or the first intifada. It also helps to have an authoritative leadership on both sides—first to negotiate, then to sell the agreement to constituents, and finally to implement the agreement.

International support, especially from Arab countries, is also critical, Peleg said. Heavy American participation is required, not just as a spectator but as a participant, and presidential involvement is crucial. Then there is the domestic American factor.

There must be careful pre-negotiation preparation, which must move cautiously to avoid failure, Peleg warned. Artificial deadlines, like the end of presidential terms, don’t work. In addition, expectations should be kept low to avoid huge disappointment. Timing is crucial and political calendars should match. Finally, there should be a willingness to apply pressure on both parties to make painful concessions.

Scham applied these factors to the current situation, starting with the distress factor. Gaza is still recovering from war and suffering under a blockade, and Israel is distressed by Iran. Leadership is a problem, as both Israel and Palestine have colorless, unpopular leaders, Scham said. If Marwan Barghouti were released from Israeli prison he might succeed in making peace, but in Israel there is not one single charismatic leader from any party, according to Scham. International and Arab supporters are still sitting on the sidelines, he added, but President Barack Obama is sending not subtle hints that he is ready to engage in this task. The question is, does Obama have the skills to navigate foreign and domestic minefields to make peace? If Obama pushes through a health care victory, Scham said, he will be in a stronger position to push for a peace agreement.

Delinda Hanley