South Africa's Transition and Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations


Joshua Weiss

Associate Director, Global Negotiation Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

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: I think the best example, with regard to power and with regard to engaging in the process, is the PLO.

My understanding is that the PLO didn't see much reason or value to get involved in the peace process because they just didn't feel like they had any way of influencing the situation. When they began to realize that they had this ability to recognize Israel, as well as other places of value, that kind of changed the dynamic for them and they saw it as something that was worth doing. I think that's probably one of the better examples of how they overcame power. I think one of the jobs of the mediator in these particular kinds of contexts is to help the parties go through this process of understanding what they want specifically.

The first step in any mediation process, really, is to sharpen the conflict. It's to really figure out exactly where the parties conflict, and that essentially exists at every level, because people most often come and they see a conflict quite differently. So you have to get out exactly how the parties see it and then whittle down from there. And so, in that sense, the job of the mediator is to help them through the process, because most of the time people don't know about a lot of these skills. I mean, some do, and some are very savvy. But it's a problem in a lot of these processes, particularly with regard to insurgents and other groups, freedom fighters, whatever you want to call them. They've spent the last decade fighting and not thinking about how to make peace, and there's a real transition as well.

The ANC really struggled with that in South Africa, about moving from a protest or a ??? organization to a political party. There's this transition about how they do that, and how do they continue to negotiate change from there. In Mozambique, the community of ??? the parties who helped to mediate that conflict were very good at helping the parties to think through those different processes. In a place like Mozambique they had some factors that were helping push them to the table. They had a famine. That was tragic, and drew, really almost drove the parties together in a way that might not have happened. In some ways you have to seize on those kinds of things that make the process, and can help transform a society so that more violence and more chaos don't continue.

Q: So I guess in this instance it would be a narrow understanding of what ripeness is, right? You see a certain moment and you can jump on it, in a sense.

A: Yeah, I mean, ripeness is a funny concept. It's funny in the sense that many people see value in it and its usefulness, but I think the concept of opportunities might be not more accurate, exactly, but it doesn't carry the same kind of connotation. I think that there are fairly clear indicators about when situations change that might make things a little bit easier or better for a process to engage.

Q: To extend the olive branch?

A: Yeah, and actually Jeff Rubin??? talked about how you help ripen a conflict. One of my concerns with ripeness is that we just kind of sit around and wait, and don't try to make the process better or help get the parties to the point where they actually want to be part of a negotiation process. We just sit back and we might let them fight it out because we keep saying it's not ripe, it's not ripe. I like the idea of thinking about how to ripen like fruit, put it in the sun. Well, that's the kind of thinking that I think is instructive, that says, so, can we help create conditions that make it more ripe for the parties? To me that's a lot more constructive than just saying, well let's get it when it's ripe, because you don't know until after the fact whether it's been ripe or not. Then if it doesn't work, you could say it wasn't ripe. So we know it's a tautological problem, but still, I wouldn't in any way discount it out of hand, because I do think it's an important idea, a useful concept for us to think about. Maybe the better way of thinking about it is if that in fact is true, then how do we help to enhance a conflict and make it so that the parties want to engage in a process?