Midnight Will Be Here Again Before Too Long

In a thoughtful and thought-provoking New York Times Op-Ed yesterday, Thomas Friedman wrote that the Kerry plan is the last hope for a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians.  If the Palestinians and Israelis find a way to proceed with the Kerry plan, everything is still possible. Success is hardly assured, but it will prove that it’s not midnight yet. But if either or both don’t agree, Kerry would have to . . . declare the end of the negotiated two-state solution.”

It’s useful to think of the Kerry plan and the current negotiations between the two parties through the lens of mediation.  One must keep in mind that what an outsider – a mediator, an observer, a friend –sees as the best course of action may not seem so to one or both parties.   If the parties are not ready to choose an outcome they can both agree to, the mediation cannot succeed – even if that outcome truly is the best one possible.

The parties’ readiness to mediate is as important, indeed more important, than the specific content of any proposed compromise or resolution. No matter how talented or powerful a mediator is – and in the case of the Middle East, the US Secretary of State is certainly powerful – if either the Israelis or Palestinians (or both) are not ready, the mediation can’t go anywhere.

The Kerry framework may in fact be the best hope for a negotiated solution today.  But that is far from saying it is the last hope.  That is where I think Friedman overstates his case.  In the lifespan of any conflict there are a number of “off-ramps” — opportunities for disputants to have their differences resolved. 

Consider a dispute between two parties.  Early in the dispute, face-to-face negotiations may be a successful off-ramp.  If that does not work, a facilitated discussion could do the trick.  If parties turn to the legal system for resolution, court-ordered mediation may provide an effective off- ramp.  Indeed, many cases settle just days or hours before a trial, or even after the trial has begun. 

If the parties ignore and bypass the current off-ramp, that doesn’t mean they will ignore the next one.  The highway of conflict is long, and third parties who would like to facilitate agreement should not become too invested in a particular off-ramp being THE ONE the parties must not miss.  Doing so wastes relationship capital on something that may not happen, and indeed undermines the credibility of the mediator when the parties cruise by the off-ramp being offered and the world does not come to an end. 

On the conflict highway, there is rarely a single “midnight” that can’t be missed.  As any clock will tell you, midnight will be here again before too long.