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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .


How Israelis and Palestinians Negotiate: A Cross Cultural Analysis of the Oslo Peace Process
Tamara Coffman Wittes (ed.)

Washington, United States Institute of Peace Press, 2005, 172 pp, PB, 9.50, ISBN 1-929223-64-1

This is the latest volume in a series on cross-cultural negotiations produced by the United States Institute of Peace. The aim of the series was to ?improve the capacity of the United States and other countries for peaceful settlement of disputes? (3). And through making specific recommendations for negotiators that could be applied in other situations of ethnic conflict, this volume undoubtedly contributes toward that aim.

Three individual essays chart for the reader the progress of the Oslo Peace Process, illustrating the ups and downs of the negotiations, and analysing them in terms of the broader international political context, including the role played by the United States as mediator (Quandt, chapter 2); and the cultural specificities of both the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams (Dajani, chapter 3, Klieman, chapter 4). This analysis is undertaken on the basis that cultural variables, colouring as they do the ?mutual perceptions and interactions? (5) of negotiating parties, can have a profound bearing on the negotiating process, and as such must be taken into consideration when evaluating the lessons learned from the success or failure of a peace process.

Omar Dajani, himself a former legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiation team, provides a marvellous account of the composition and dynamics of the Palestinian team, as well as a description of the organisation, or lack thereof, that only an insider can do really well. He takes the reader through what are perceived as the central aspects of Palestinian culture, from their origins in the Nakba, or ?catastrophe?, through military occupation, to the experience of self-government. He then highlights the manifestations of this culture in terms of a passive negotiating strategy focused on principle rather than detail, inadequate planning, based on a distinction being made between interim arrangements and final status negotiations, and fragmented delegations.

Aharon Klieman then outlines the basic Israeli styles of negotiation used during the Oslo process. He demonstrates the degree to which the military national security dominated ethos permeates Israeli culture and negotiating style, resulting in a much tougher and less compromising style than that of the Palestinians. This is evidenced in maximum opening demands, a fixation with detail rather than principle, and a tough talking bluntness. While this is the dominant trait that reveals itself in Israeli negotiating style, Klieman highlights the existence of ?dichotomous Israeli negotiating subcultures? (98) of the military and the diplomats, and the chapter advises looking within a culture for ?indications of heterogeneity and pluralism? (116) which can themselves cause difficulties in terms of delivering a deal to a domestic constituency. This suggests the possible limitations of using culture as a variable in analysing negotiations, namely that culture is not a uniform characteristic, and may itself be influenced by external factors linked to the process, such as renewed attacks, or failure to deliver on an agreement.

By drawing principles for broader application from the lessons of the Oslo process, this volume will be of interest to scholars and practitioners alike. The essays address issues of positions and personalities through the lens of culture, suggesting that, rather than being an independent intervening variable, culture permeates all levels of society from individual to international (138), becoming integral to national character. This adds a further layer to the analysis of negotiation, which focuses on personalities and positions, suggesting as it does that these themselves are shaped by culture.

While it is commonly assumed that cultural awareness is about understanding difference, what is striking about this volume are the similarities between the experiences of each side. The essays reveal the common importance of identity and national narrative in forming negotiating culture. Both Israelis and Palestinians have a national identity forged through adversity and a perception of weakness. Cofman Wittes concludes that this parallel between the sides makes them interact particularly badly in negotiations on issues seen as concerning the ?existential viability? of the communities (136). Thus the lesson put forward for negotiators is that history is important.

Finally, the analysis contained in these works suggests that while an awareness of the culture of the opposing side is necessary for negotiation to succeed, so too is an awareness of the cultural factors influencing one?s own position, a point alluded to by Klieman when he advocates looking more closely at competing national subcultures (117). For, as the essays reveal, understanding culture in and of itself is not enough to overcome difference. It would seem that understanding the factors underlying one?s own negotiating position is just as necessary as understanding those of the other side if the two positions are to be reconciled.


Catherine Turner, Research Assistant, Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster



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