Can You Relate? Friendships in the Middle East

Here is a truly inspiring story about my sister Ruth Ebenstein, a breast cancer survivor who lives in Jerusalem.  It describes her friendship with Ibtisam, a Palestinian woman from Abu Dis whom Ruth met through an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group.

What is moving about the story is the way that two individuals built a relationship in a region filled with conflict. I see in Ruth and Ibitsam’s relationship an important lesson about negotiation more broadly: the power of separating the people from the problem.

In any negotiation, there are bound to be areas of substantive disagreement, where the two parties want different outcomes and cannot agree.  At the same time, a relationship exists between negotiating parties, comprising how the parties interact, communicate and generally feel about each other.  Skilled negotiators understand that even when their disagreements with the other side are extremely intense, it is important to separate substantive differences from the interpersonal relationship. Separating and preserving the relationship in the face of conflict allows dialogue to continue.  Indeed, the more passionately held the conflicting views, the more essential it is to maintain an ongoing relationship, opening the door to possible compromise and negotiated agreement. 

Friendships like that of Ruth and Ibtisam show how conflict in this region and in others can be transcended – by fostering dialogue and relationships despite substantive disagreements.