Latest update: June 25th, 2012
Last Thursday, JewishPress.com had the opportunity to interview Harvard Business School professor James Sebenius at the 2012 President’s Conference. Professor Sebenius is both an expert on the theory of negotiations and a professional negotiator to boot. He also heads up the Harvard Negotiations Project.
If you’re interested in how we got this interview, please read about that here.
Professor Sebenius was warm and engaging, and asked that I call him Jim.
It turns out that beyond his conventional credentials, Jim is also involved – in some undisclosed capacity – in the US-Iranian negotiations and the Israel-PA negotiations. And so I took his request that we avoid getting into specifics about these negotiations seriously.
Jim began by telling me how much he enjoys Israel, that he spent part of his leave here last year in Neve Tzedek instead of in Boston, and lectured at Tel Aviv University; and he tried to make it out here a few times a year.
For the next half hour Jim and I discussed competitive vs. cooperative negotiating partners, whether or not Iran is a rational or honest negotiating partner, and how one can foster a situation where there is actually something to negotiate about (ie. identifying what the other side really needs and simultaneously what they really don’t).
Throughout, I found myself completely enthralled by this intellectually stimulating discussion.
The discussion began with him posing a question about what he brings to the table in a country full of natural negotiators, and answers it himself by saying that he brings us an outsider’s perspective.
We discussed the threshold issue in negotiations, one relevant to both theater’s Jim advises on: how one can determine whether a negotiating partner actually has an interest in achieving a mutually acceptable goal. I offered my view that Iran’s goal is Armageddon, and the PA’s goal is to destroy and replace Israel, thus creating a situation of mutual exclusion, a zero-sum game whereby achievement of these parties’ goals precludes achievement of those of their negotiation partners.
Jim explains, that ironically, sometimes you have to enter negotiations to find out if the other side is serious about negotiations, but conceded that at some point in the process you do need to make an ultimate determination of whether the party sitting across the table is seeking a resolution or just looking to buy time.
In negotiations, it is critical that one determine the goals and the alternatives. Both a strike on Iran and a nuclear Iran would be very costly and risky, but America (and Israel) may have to choose between the two. Negotiation seeks to find a third, better alternative, and push for it by utilizing the right incentives and/or deterrents.
But much of this calculus depends on the internal decision-making of the Iranian regime – do they want weapons at all costs, and why?
Thus, the goal of negotiations is to create a “zone of agreement,” that is, a situation that is better than, say, war or a nuclear Iran. Part of reaching that “zone of agreement” is creating a situation where not reaching agreement is worse than the agreement that could be reached. Essentially, this means imposing costs that open up a “zone of possibilities.”
Another crucial aspect of negotiating with an intransigent partner is finding a “currency” that is valuable to the other side.
We talked about whether Iran is a rational actor. I raised Meir Dagan’s point that in Western terms, the regime doesn’t appear rational, but that within their own calculus, they actually are. As an example, some suggest that membership in World Trade Organization is one type of “currency” to entice. And though this is something a western-oriented country would jump at, it is actually of little value to Iran, as they are isolationists by nature.
On the other hand, Iran needs help increasing and improving its oil output, and this is an extremely valuable “currency” to the regime, and to the West as well.
So a sophisticated negotiator will try to identify a “zone of agreement” and determine if there is an avenue worth pursuing, or not. And if the Western powers operate on the proposition that Iran is Messianic, then negotiations are of no value, and they’re left with the two original and frightening choices.
Discussing the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, I asked whether the Palestinians even have any “currency” of real value that they can offer Israel, such as peace, and the related question of whether they actually have any interest in resolution.
Jim rephrased my question though, asking: “Is a two-state solution actually in Israel’s interest?”
I, for my part, said no.
Jim explained that the question is not whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for Israel, but rather in terms of the alternatives – “Which is the better situation for Israel?”
While Netanyahu has said that a two-state solution is in Israel’s strategic interest, the critical question is whether that premise is true? And the answer will determine whether Israel should expend time negotiating for the two-state solution, beyond the desire to mollify the international community. After all, there are actually plenty of reasons to negotiate, though not necessarily one reason to reach a resolution.
Jim expressed the view that the negotiations across the Israel-PA table are probably easier than the internal negotiations each side is dealing with.
For instance, Israel has had enough bad experiences after evacuating Lebanon and Gaza that the risks of evacuating from the West Bank might be too high. And with the construction of the security barrier, the extensive cooperation of the Israeli and PA security forces (the level of which we disagree on), and the possibility that we are actually negotiating a “two-staged” solution, not a two-state solution, the status quo does not look so bad for Israel; and a resolution under the rubric of negotiations is thus undesirable.
I pointed out that this is similar to the issue of the Golan Heights: there are no negotiations taking place, yet the situation is relatively stable and secure for the Israelis.
In short, the value of the deal is small and the risk is high, and that is why Israelis don’t support peace talks.
The Palestinians may comprehend this calculus, and for this reason decide that the Israelis are not serious negotiators.
I didn’t think to point this out at the time, but if this logic indeed rules the negotiating calculus, then ironically, a drastic increase in Palestinian terror attacks would induce more Israelis to want to reach a negotiated resolution. At the same time though, this would reduce our trust in them as negotiating partners even further. Recognizing these complicated strategic implications sheds light on how negotiations with the Palestinians seem to lead nowhere (besides the fact that peace isn’t their goal).
The question I did think to ask was: “Considering everything Israel has done, including creating the PA, giving them guns, leaving Gaza, the settlement freeze, and so on and so forth, wouldn’t it appear that there are no steps that Israel can take that the Palestinians would consider to be serious?”
Jim answered in the negative, saying there are those that take Israel’s steps seriously. A big problem, he continued, is that each side is deeply suspicious of the other.
Unfortunately, just as we were diving further into this topic, our time elapsed. Nevertheless, we both couldn’t help but note that our discussion took us to the exact issues we had agreed not to discuss at the interviews outset. Apparently, we had reached a “zone of agreement,” and departed from each other the better for it.
For more background on this interview, please read this.
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