Transforming Conflicts in the Middle East and Central Europe

Summary of

Transforming Conflicts in the Middle East and Central Europe

By Louis Kriesberg

This Article Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Kriesberg, Louis. "Transforming Conflicts in the Middle East and Central Europe" Intractable Conflicts and Their Transformation. Ed. Louis Kriesberg, Terrell A. Northrup and Stuart J. Thorson. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989. Pp. 109-131.

In this article Louis Kriesberg presents two case studies of the conflicts in the Middle East and Central Europe after World War II. He describes efforts directed at prevention of their intractability as well as those that encouraged their transformation toward becoming more negotiable. In this summary, I will present his ideas on the latter issue. According to Kriesberg, for transformation to happen, a strategy should be developed that incorporates "the appropriate parties, issues, and combination of inducements for the desired movement at a particular time" (p. 119). This might not be consciously planned, but still involves some coherent actions.

Transforming Intractability

Efforts toward conflict transformation can be implemented by a variety of parties. Who those parties are influences the effectiveness of their efforts. The strategy for conflict transformation combines certain choices of issues, parties and inducements. It might seem that there are no common issues shared between the parties. But this is often not true. Conflicts develop constantly and even if they now lack any negotiation potential, in some time they might regain it. Kriesberg provides a few examples of agreements that were based on years of negotiating on peripheral issues: the Helsinki Accords (November 1972-August 1975), agreements of detente which were accompanied by bilateral agreements between countries besides the U.S. and Soviet Union (the Austrian State Treaty (1955), U.S.-USSR cultural exchange agreement (1958), a treaty prohibiting the military use of Antarctica (1959), etc.). As with issues, the positions of the parties in conflict may seem unchangeable. In reality though, there are a multiplicity of conflicts cross-cutting each other. Any conflict can be considered narrow or broad depending on what angle we look at it. For example, the Central European conflict could be regarded as one between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, or between socialism and imperialism.

In order to de-escalate a conflict, the number of parties might be increased to include those who want to reach an agreement, or decreased to exclude those who are not willing to moderate their positions. For example, at the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was averse to negotiating with multiple parties (U.S., Great Britain, and France) because it was singled out. The situation changed when bilateral negotiations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. were conducted. Basic transformation is a long-term process, since it necessitates altering the public opinion of large populations toward accommodation. Intermediaries play a significant role in transforming conflict toward becoming tractable. The Israeli-Egyptian negotiations are an example. In the case of Central Europe, intermediaries served as an "audience ... to which appeals were made" and facilitated multilateral negotiations (p. 125).

There are three types of inducements that are used by adversaries and contribute to conflict transformation: coercion, tradeoffs and persuasion. According to Kriesberg, the inducements should create a situation where the status quo becomes attractive to the parties. The sequence of inducements is very important. In the early stage, coercion can play an important role, but it has to be combined with trust-building inducements. For example, the USSR gained considerable military strength in the 1960s, which produced a status quo in Eastern and Central Europe. Western powers were forced to accept it. At the same time the Soviet Union tried to create an image of a reliable and not excessively aggressive international partner by reducing its control in Eastern Europe and relaxing domestic politics. The agreements of 1970s were the result.

In the Middle East, the PLO emerged in the 1960s. It was using coercion to mobilize Palestinians and make the status quo more costly for Israel. The PLO's strategies combined political and diplomatic measures. Other organizations in the Palestinian movement challenged the PLO's approach and resorted to violence. Instead of becoming tractable, the conflict escalated to mutual violence between Arabs and Jews. Palestinians were not able to change the status quo and their actions prevented the emergence of conditions supporting any kind of settlement.


Kriesberg suggests a few strategies for transformation of the conflict in Middle East. Comparing the achievements of President Sadat in dealing with Israel the author believes that the PLO was lacking a large package of benefits that it could offer to Israel. After a Palestinian uprising started on the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's costs for maintaining the occupation increased. A settlement does not look so unrealistic under contemporary conditions. The creation of a small Palestinian state within the framework of economic and military agreements with the Soviet Union, Jordan and the United States might be beneficial for all sides of the conflict. One strategy to transform the conflict would be for Israel to provide an incentive for Jordan to start negotiations with Israel. This would mean bringing governments besides the U.S. and Egypt to the negotiation table, including, he said in 1989, the Soviet Union. The uprising and King Hussein's withdrawal from exercising authority in the occupied territories make this strategy ineffective. Another strategy for Israel would be direct negotiations with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to modify the status quo to make it mutually acceptable. The effectiveness of this strategy is also unlikely after the Uprising and the PLO's strengthening of its positions. A third possible strategy would be to work with the PLO and Palestinians from the occupied territories. The first step might be conducting elections in West Bank and Gaza with PLO participation in them. The next step would be to start negotiations between Palestinians and Israel with mediation provided by other countries. In the Central European conflict, continuing attention is required to prevent the conflicts there from becoming intractable.

Thus, conflicts are not necessarily totally nonnegotiable. There are always peripheral parties that are willing to negotiate on less substantial issues. Of course, those small settlements might not have enough influence on the major actors to bring conflict transformation. The essential issue in intractable conflicts is that at least one of the parties perceives that the adversary constitutes a threat to its values and identity. This view is subjective and can be reframed. But this does not mean that it is unrealistic. The adversary would have to change its threatening behavior for the conflict to become negotiable. This transformation is the result of internal change within the parties.