If mediation is such a terrific process, why don’t we see it used more often at the international level? A good question! Actually, various types of negotiations and mediations are going on all the time behind the scenes. Sometimes, however, we see a public breakthrough that reminds us of why mediation is such a successful conflict resolution tool.
One of the most impressive international uses of mediation was the pact which ended the long-standing conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. However, such agreements are not reached in a matter of days. Indeed, it took George Mitchell and his team of mediators 740 days to solve that one. George Mitchell has demonstrated his patience in the past and so was chosen as Middle East envoy to try to bring about concord between Israelis and Palestinians at a time when their conflict continues to escalate and an impasse remains.
Although the Middle East dispute seems insoluble, it is the same sort of conflict that many of us face on a daily basis, but writ large. Resolving it would be to everyone’s advantage, but disputants often don’t see it that way.
In an article written for Common Ground News, two women, one Palestinian and one Israeli, discuss the unacknowledged fear of peace that both sides hold. Continuing conflict in the belief that one’s side is totally good and the other is all bad can be less frightening than the complex possibility of peace with one’s neighbor. If one does not have to face his or her dual role as both victim and perpetrator, one can continue believing that only the other guy is monstrous and inhumane.
Envisioning peace may thus actually stand in the way of conflict resolution, both at the international level and in personal lives. That’s why mediators often ask both sides, “What would you like to see happen as a result of this mediation?” Each may have a hazy idea of what he/she really wants, but as both sides begin to offer possibilities, the details of peace emerge more tangibly. Usually, those details are written into the mediation agreement in the form of goals and expectations.
Lucy Nusseibeh and Shelley Ostroff also suggest that continuing conflict allows people to hold onto the comforting fantasy of total control: that if they persist enough, the adversary will disappear, and then an individual (or a society) will be totally vindicated and everything will turn out exactly they way he/she/they want it to. Unless one’s adversary is subject to immediate collapse, the fantasy of disappearance probably isn’t going to happen.
MSAC mediators will not accept a conflict in which the power imbalance is too great. Unless adversaries can meet as equals and share their needs and interests, it is unlikely that a good agreement can be arrived at. That’s why MSAC mediators require equal commitments from both sides in an agreement and also why a team of male and female mediators helps to ensure equality in gendered disputes. George Mitchell will have his hands full, but asking disputants to envision peace may be a good beginning.
Janet M. Powers is MSAC’s Presiding Officer