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Translating the Informal into the Formal

George Joffé - 15th February 2017
Translating the Informal into the Formal

Using the case of Israel and the PLO, George Joffé explores the importance of empathy to any negotiating process. This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.

I have spent a large part of my professional career observing the more formal end of the political process, particularly in connection with foreign policy issues in the European Union and the Middle East. In that domain, the issue of the informal – the way in which public opinion or civil society manages to influence formal policy outcomes – is rarely overtly recognised. It is, as it were, the spectre at the feast, whether as initiatives from civil society or as ‘Track II’ diplomacy, a ghostly presence which is consciously ignored, even if sub-consciously it influences outcomes.

In the context of the European Union, that may not be so surprising, given the complexity of the process of policy-making there. After all, inter-governmentalism, externalisation and subsidiarity leave little room for civil society initiatives, even if European normative values involve a conventional recognition of their formal importance. Beyond that, the elevation of the Union’s common foreign and security policy into the proprietary realm of the European External Action Service in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon distances policy formation and articulation even further from direct democratic engagement, despite the dreams of the neo-functionalists. It is this sense of popular irrelevance to policy formation, no doubt, that drives a large part of the growing disenchantment with the European project.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, the picture is far less clear although it is quite evident that public disenchantment with the outcomes of formal policy lay behind the Obama administration’s desire to disengage from Middle Eastern affairs, even if, in practice, this was to prove to be extremely difficult to do. In a similar way, Europe’s acute anxiety over the migrant and refugee crisis is an equally acute reflection of the concerns of European statesmen over public reaction to the realities of absorption and integration of non-European minorities into the European body politic and social. Yet there have, in the past, been occasions when informal engagement has directly and positively influenced formal policy-making, even if the final outcome has not fulfilled the hopes and ambitions spurred by the initiative itself.

Israel and the PLO

One such example, it seems to me, is provided by the negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1993, after the American initiative at Madrid in October 1991 and Washington thereafter, in the wake of the expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait, had failed so comprehensively. Although in the end the initiative itself also failed with the collapse last year of the Oslo Process, it did initially represent a surprising breakthrough in what had been a barren confrontation over the previous fifty-five years. Equally surprisingly, it was based on what was, in effect, interfaith dialogue – albeit between secularist Israeli intellectuals and their Palestinian counterparts, mediated by Norwegian academics – although interfaith dialogue had proceeded for years before between the two sides and between Jews and Palestinians in Europe without apparent success.

The real point of this engagement was that it did eventually produce a pathway from interfaith dialogue to formal diplomatic agreement and an outcome from which, in dialectical fashion, formal policy could be constructed. As such, therefore, it should provide pointers as to how the links between the informal and formal negotiating processes can be forged. And its failure, too, may tell us something about why such transitions are so difficult to achieve successfully for, as T.S. Eliot has told us, “In my beginning is my end.” I would, therefore, like to take a little time to examine how those negotiations took place to see what general lessons we can extract from them about how informal discussions can result in formal diplomatic outcomes – or not, as the case may be!

The initial contacts arose from a household survey that the Norwegian foreign affairs institute, FAFO, had been conducting on the West Bank. Its researchers discussed informally with a group of Israeli academics ways in which the failing American-led negotiations in Washington between Israeli diplomats and Palestinian representatives could be revived. It is, perhaps, important to note that failure there was a consequence of several factors which illustrate the dangers of formal diplomacy! Firstly, the basic principles for negotiation had been laid out at a conference in the Carter Center in Atlanta in April 1990, the first flush of the impending end of the Cold War. There it had been concluded that the United States was the only power capable of bringing Arab and Israeli negotiators together to resolve the long-standing crisis in the Middle East but that only the actual parties to the dispute could properly decide its outcome.

That was a principle that the Clinton administration, newly arrived in office, chose to ignore by trying to impose its own vision of what the outcome should be on the negotiators. Its mistake was compounded by another, namely that the negotiations took place in the full glare of public scrutiny, thereby ensuring that delegates to them enunciated maximalist positions from which they could not subsequently resile. There had been a further, understandable error in the way in which the original negotiations had been constructed, in that, at Israeli insistence, the PLO had been deliberately excluded from them. That had meant that, in the context of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (there were two other negotiating tracks as well – bilateral Israeli/Arab state relations and multilateral negotiations between states on regional issues), the Palestinian representatives from the Occupied Territories (the only Palestinians with whom Israel was prepared to engage – Palestinians in the wider diaspora being completely excluded) eventually took their direction from the PLO in Tunis in order to ensure a cohesive Palestinian position.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the ground was implicitly prepared for an informal alternative and, even though the participants in that separate initiative may not have been consciously faith-based, their objective locations paralleled those of the endless interfaith dialogues of the past. On the Israeli side, the initial discussions were led by Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundik who engaged, first, with Mariana Heiberg, the leading Norwegian researcher for FAFO in the West Bank, who was married to Johan Jørgen Holst, then Norwegian defence minister. She then facilitated contacts with interested Palestinians who also had access to the PLO leadership in Tunis. Each side was able to convince its political leaders that more formal but secret negotiations might offer a path to the success that had eluded the formal negotiators in Washington, with the result that such negotiations did begin. The Norwegian role was vital because, unlike the United States, those directly in charge of the process – Terje Rød-Larsen, the director of FAFO, and Monica Jul from the Norwegian foreign ministry – did not attempt to dictate an agenda but simply provided neutral, secret and secure venues in which the two sides could engage in confidence.

Ironically enough, in that lay the weaknesses of the initiative which would ultimately destroy it, for the negotiating process involved yet another principle of asymmetric negotiation, as Johan Jørgen Holst, by then the Norwegian foreign minister in charge of the negotiating process, pointed out in a private communication. This was that, in any negotiation, it is the weaker side that must be prepared to make concessions to the stronger, in order to persuade the latter that the negotiating process in itself would be a worthwhile undertaking. In the Oslo process, this meant that although Israeli negotiators came fully supported by teams of experts, the Palestinians were denied such support at Israeli insistence so that their chief negotiators, Abu Ala and Hassan Asfour, lacked access to appropriate expertise. This was, of course, to prove the truth of T.S. Eliot’s insight, for, in that asymmetry, lay the cause of the eventual collapse of the Oslo process itself. That collapse may have taken a long time to achieve, but it was probably an ineluctable consequence of the way in which the negotiating process itself had evolved.

Implications and consequences

This narrative, it seems to me, highlights some of the massive problems in opening up formal diplomatic negotiation to meaningful informal ‘Track II’ participation. I think that there are at least nine issues, which are often interrelated, that need to be considered. These we could label professionalization, process, empathy, ownership, access, engagement, asymmetry, secrecy and trust:

1) Professionalization: Chronic unresolved issues in international relations have a tendency to generate endless debate at both the formal and informal levels. Over time, however, the two levels become increasingly isolated from one another and the informal dimension is progressively marginalised as practitioners and commentators take over. These ‘professionals’ are not just diplomats but increasingly include think-tank communities and academic networks in which the issue generates an endless round of discussion, rather than practical attempts at its resolution. I have bitter-sweet memories of precisely these issues in an academic network in Europe and the Mediterranean which I helped to manage on behalf of the European Union in the first decade of this century. Discussions over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process eventually led one frustrated participant to demand, “Just do the deal, we’ll sort out the problems afterwards!” Nobody, of course, was prepared endorse such an undiplomatic approach.

2) Process: This marginalisation, in turn, generates a further blockage to practical resolution, for the process of professional discussion, in itself, gradually substitutes for the political issue seeking some pragmatic, practical outcome. It becomes, in short, an end-in-itself. I have sat through – even organised – repeated discussions and analyses over the years of, for example, the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian disputes, conducted by professionals and academics, without ever seeing any real progress towards practical outcomes but after each meeting, the participants have either congratulated each other on ‘clearing the air’ or on furthering their understanding whilst those directly affected are merely depressed by the inevitable lack of progress.

3) Empathy: One of the most common reasons for this lack of progress is a lack of empathy on both sides of the table; ironically enough, informal engagement, such as inter-faith dialogue, is intended to counter precisely this problem although, in my experience, it rarely succeeds. There are good reasons for this at both the formal and informal levels. One is a kind of mutual incomprehension, arising from the fact that the narratives enunciated by each side are often mutually contradictory and are, therefore, rejected since each narrative threatens the other, as Zionism and Palestinian nationalism demonstrate so clearly. There is rarely sufficient empathy on either side for the opposing narrative to be recognised as legitimate, even if it could not be accepted, so compromise, in itself, becomes impossible as it would endanger the credibility of each narrative. At the formal level, such mutual rejection becomes political as any concession is perceived to mark a weakening in the validity of the claims being pursued.

4) Ownership: One of the major reasons for excluding the informal level of engagement in conflict resolution is that, as the negotiating process becomes institutionalised, so it becomes a ‘possession’ of those engaged in it. As a result, other potential contributors are excluded from it for they would threaten proprietary control. It is an issue that is a particular vice of the professional! I well remember an occasion when academic advice was offered to British ministers over the consequences of an invasion of Iraq, advice that was comprehensively ignored despite its accuracy, largely because those who proffered it were not part of the in-group controlled by government! And the Quartet Initiative, designed to save the Arab-Israeli peace process, was comprehensively discredited for Palestinians when Tony Blair became its principal representative.

5) Access: This is a problem which is related to the previous point. It is extremely difficult for the informal level of debate over conflict resolution to gain access to the formal level in order to influence it. This difficulty of access increases in direct proportion to the degree of professionalization to which the process of conflict resolution has been exposed. It is also intensified by the depth of ownership felt by the professional participants in the process, particularly if the process has tended to become an end-in-itself. Thus, Warren Christopher, the then secretary-of-state who had known beforehand about the Norwegian track which paralleled the formal Washington negotiations but believed that it was condemned to irrelevance, was stupefied to learn of its success in late August 1993 largely because, in his eyes, valid negotiations could only occur in the formal negotiating arena. President Clinton, however, who was intensely politically aware, responded by embracing the Oslo Process and converting it into an American triumph in the White House rose-garden, although he, too, was to come unstuck some seven years later in the Camp David II negotiations!

6) Engagement: The primary reason for his failure was that, having embraced an informal process, he tried to ‘own’ it and tailor its outcomes to his own political ends. Thus, anxious to crown his presidency with a successful conclusion to the Palestinian issue, he sought to compel Yasir Arafat into concessions that the Palestinian leader knew would not be acceptable to his own constituency. When he refused, he was then publicly blamed for the failure, even though he had warned the president of the ‘red-lines’ he could not cross beforehand and had extracted a promise that he would not be blamed if the negotiations failed.

7) Asymmetry: Although the Camp David negotiations were hardly an example of the relationship between informal and formal levels of negotiations, they did highlight a problem that had bedevilled the linkages between the two since the original Oslo negotiations. It is a problem that seemingly contradicts the principle that the weak must concede to the strong in order to persuade the latter to negotiate at all, for such asymmetry can fatally weaken any agreement unless there are gate-keepers who can ensure that excessive concessions are not made. This is, in essence, what the United States has consistently failed to do but it also reflects one of the dangers of informal ‘Track II’ diplomacy for, there, such concessions are far more difficult to police without betraying another negotiating principle, namely that the gate-keeper must not try to determine the substance of negotiation.

8) Secrecy: We have seen the consequences of publicity in maximising demands and minimising compromise in the Washington peace process in the early 1990s, so the security offered by secrecy to the negotiating process seems the obvious alternative. However, that too has its dangers for, under the cloak of secrecy, concessions can be made that would fatally weaken the final outcome, particularly if the negotiations take place at the informal level.

9) Trust: In some ways, this seems the most unlikely condition for success, for trust is what is essentially lacking in any dispute. Indeed, Bill Zartman argues that success only comes when both parties are locked in a ‘mutually-hurting stalemate’ – hardly a recipe for trust! Yet, without a modicum of belief that both sides want a solution and believe that their opponent does too, success will be elusive, if not impossible. Nor can coercion compensate for its lack, not least if one of the partners to the dispute believes that the allegedly coercive third party ultimately lacks the ability to make coercion effective. That, after all, is the situation that bedevilled John Kerry’s herculean yet vain attempts to push Israel along the tack to a two-state solution.

The future

Many of these issues, of course, apply to any negotiating process, whether formal or informal and perhaps the most important of them – and one that can best be fostered by its informal dimension – is the issue of empathy. The imaginative acceptance of an opponent’s narrative without adopting it as one’s own makes it possible to see what concessions could and should be made for the negotiating process to succeed. And that is something for which informal negotiating is ideally suited for, in theory at least, nothing is vested in a formal political outcome. And, as such, it can set the scene for formal diplomacy by establishing the terms under which the latter should proceed.

Sadly, it seems unlikely that such an approach will not be tried in the near future, with respect to the stagnant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, at least, even though, quietly, some Arab states have begun to court informal links with Israel and might, therefore, be thought to be potential facilitators. The Trump administration seems to believe that all that is required is a ‘great deal’ achieved by a skilled commercial negotiator, such as Mr Trump’s son-in-law, despite the fact that he supports the more extreme aspects of Israel’s settlement programme, as does the Trump administration itself – hardly a basis for empathy or trust. If the president is right, then fifty years of familiarity with the intricacies of formal and informal diplomacy will have been rendered comprehensively irrelevant. And, if he is wrong, he will, no doubt, blame the Palestinians for not making the calamitous compromises inherent in the construction of the ‘great deal’. We shall see!



George Joffé researches and teaches the international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Cambridge. Other freely available chapters from the forthcoming e-book are serialised here.

Photo credit: jaime.silva via / CC BY-NC-ND