In Mediation, Set Conditions with Care

By — on / Mediation

On April 9, Israel said it was “deeply disappointed” by remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry that seemed to primarily blame Israel for the current breakdown in U.S.-mediated Middle East peace talks, as reported in the New York Times.

Last July, the United States brought Israel and the Palestinians back together for a series of talks set to span nine months. Each side set a condition to sitting down and staying at the table: Israel pledged to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four groups over the course of the nine months, and the Palestinians vowed not to join any international bodies during this time.

But the talks eventually became bogged down over borders, security, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and other issues, the Times reports.

In April 8 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry attributed the recent impasse primarily to Israel’s decision to build 700 new housing units for Jewish settlers in an area of Jerusalem that Palestinians had claimed for a future state. In what has since been referred to as the “poof” speech, Kerry said of Israel’s announcement, “Poof, that was sort of the moment.”

Israel objected to that characterization, saying the Palestinians’ decision to join 15 international conventions and treaties, in violation of its conditions to the U.S.-led mediation, was responsible for the impasse. The move by the Palestinians came on the heels of Israel’s publication of construction bids for the new housing and its failure to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by a promised March deadline.

Israel said it had been preparing to release the prisoners as part of a broader deal on the condition that the Palestinians agree to extend the negotiations beyond their April 29 end date. The Palestinians said the prisoner release was not supposed to be contingent on a deadline extension for the negotiations.

The impasse and resulting flare-up of tensions suggests both the promise and difficulty of setting conditions to mediation and other forms of negotiation. As Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School writes in his April 2007 Negotiation Briefings article “Negotiate Conditions—and Bring Value to the Deal,” proposing conditions to entering talks can be an effective means of capitalizing on the value a counterpart places on your participation in negotiation.

When your entry to a negotiation has value, writes Subramanian, “don’t give it away.” Instead, propose negotiating conditions that will help define the negotiation process to your advantage.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, setting preconditions to negotiation allowed the notoriously distrusting parties to return to the table for an important round of talks. However, as we see here, conditions are not a cure-all. If parties fail to follow through on the conditions—or believe the other party is not following through—negotiations are all too likely to collapse.

Thus, it pays to consider conditions to negotiating, but they must be established with care—preferably in writing—and revisited throughout the course of talks as a test of compliance and trust building.

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