Consensus Building in the Middle East

Larry Susskind

Co-Director of the Public Disputes Program, Inter-University Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: We recently finished the first environmental mediation in Israel, it took us two years to get the parties to the table because it was both Arab and Israeli parties in the midst of the Intifada. Therefore getting them all to the table was extremely complicated. Two years to get them to the table, eight months to do the negotiation. The day the negotiation produced a written agreement everybody was convinced it would be implemented. The government of Israel decided to make a new park in the Galilee in the North. They just didn't tell any of the Arab neighbors living within the bounds of what is now the park. The well was with this compound of houses, which the Arab families have had for centuries or whatever was the focal point for people coming to the park. I mean the park was announced, just nobody told them. So people coming to this well, they came out with their guns and said what are you doing, go away this is my well. Of course they're speaking Arabic and the other people speak Hebrew and it caused all kinds of difficulty.

Ultimately they found out what had gone on. They said sorry "You can't do this," and the Arabs said "This is our land," and they said, "Oh, you don't have any rights to this property in the first place, it's all illegal, so we don't have to talk to you." So we had the job of bringing together a team to mediate this, a bi-ethnic team. We trained the mediators and the mediators did the mediation. It involved many families of multiple generations on the Arab side, about who could speak for the Arab landholders. It involved the national government, environmental advocacy groups, groups advocating for Muslim Arabs within the country. I mean, endless complexity. We got the agreement and the national park services said, "Okay these are the new terms and we have to change the rules for people using this place." The family owners in the compound had to agree that this park was going forward. I don't think anyone doubts that the agreements was going to go forward, so it took a very long time to get everybody to the table and explain what mediation was. It took a modest amount of time, less then a year, with pretty much weekly interactions to get the agreement and the implementation was a matter of weeks.

Q: Okay.

A: The difference is in different stories. I'm just trying to give you an international example where the front end is very, very time consuming because there's no institutional awareness of the idea of mediating environmental disputes. You have to create the equivalent of the institutional commitment to do it. That's the up front. That's why the up front is so much more time consuming.

Q: Last question and let me just play devils advocate on that last example that you had. If I am an Arab resident of that park that was once my land and I say what good is this process, I didn't want this thing to happen, now there's a park on my land. Why should I ever involve myself in this kind of process again?

A: One, you've gotten compensation that you weren't getting before. Two, you've gotten formal agreement that it is your land, this segment within the park. Three, you've gotten guarantees that you can now, you know both take to the bank and take to future governments in writing that say these are the terms under which people will use the park and the surrounding area but we have to promise not to impede their use of the park and so on and so forth. So I've come out ahead or I wouldn't have made the deal.

Q: Okay, and I presume that in the beginning you would of talked about alternatives to not doing these talks?

A: Exactly.

Q: Let's fight, pull out your guns.

A: Exactly