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What the World’s Leading Negotiating Expert Didn’t Understand About Negotiating

I never met Roger Fisher, who died last month, nor read his much-acclaimed book on negotiations, Getting To Yes. But I gather he was something of a legend around Harvard and in academic circles in the field of negotiating theory. His death prompted a number of warm pieces about academic negotiations studies, highlighting his role as something of an entrepreneur who devoted his life to searching out conflicts to be resolved and yeses to be gotten. Having plied the waters of Arab-Israeli negotiations for the better part of two decades without much success, I began to think maybe we could have used his help. As my grandmother used to say about chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt.

But the more I think about what’s required to get to a serious negotiation, let alone to reach an agreement, the less enamored I am with the sort of approach to which Fisher devoted his life, the theory, jargon and modeling—let alone the whole academic programs that purport to teach conflict resolution or how to negotiate. Based on my experience, which I concede is limited to Arab-Israeli negotiations, I just don’t think they answer the mail about how and when negotiations can actually work.

That’s largely because real negotiations are often the very antithesis of thoughtful, systematic, rational and intellectually honest exercises. In fact, they’re driven and shaped by factors, such as luck, politics and personality, that are hard to quantify and more experiential than analytical.

Reading Fisher now, I’m not sure what all the shouting was about. Of the four basic concepts he identified for effective negotiations, most seem either too obvious or not applicable to my Middle East experience. For example, the first basic Fisher rule was separate the people from the problem. I assume he means leaders; Good luck with that one. Whether it was Arafat, Rabin, King Hussein or Assad, personality and the self-image of the leader was essential. Ditto for Begin and Sadat. Middle East peacemaking is deeply personal because the stakes (life and death) are so high. Ask Sadat and Rabin, if you could. There’s no way to draw the sharp distinctions Fisher did.

Another Fisher principle was to develop objective criteria so that when there was disagreement, there would be some reasonable baseline to resolve them. If by that Fisher meant that bridging proposals should be designed to accommodate each side’s needs to the extent possible, fine. But how do you determine objectivity when leader A’s position is colored by his emotional identification with an issue (Arafat and Jerusalem) or leader B’s is driven by the need to avoid political exposure (Ehud Barak’s need to make sure Israelis could drive the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee, thus denying the Syrians a waterline position)? The answer is you don’t.

What you do try to do is to take each side’s unreasonableness and try to convert it to some common ground by showing both sides they might be able to have their needs met through this bridging idea or that. And if it works, objectivity—whatever that means—is not the relevant factor in any event; the sides’ owning the bridging mechanism and being able to sell it, is.

To complete his four key ingredients for effective negotiations, Fisher adds two principles—focus on interests not positions and generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement. Frankly, the entire paradigm seems not terribly relevant to the situations we confronted. Granted, we didn’t have all that much success. But it’s hard to relate the theory of Getting to Yes—at least in Middle East diplomacy—to how and why negotiations work.

Give me a real crisis with enough urgency to invest the parties with ownership, set up a credible process, find a mediator with will and skill, add a little luck, and poof, you too can have a chance at an agreement. Less is more here. Toward that end, here are a half dozen rules of the road on when and how negotiations actually work.

Own up: Former World Bank and Harvard President Larry Summers was right. In the history of the world nobody ever washed a rental car. People really care only about what they own. And without those in conflict actually investing themselves in the need for an agreement, there won’t be one. It’s no coincidence that the only three breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli negotiations (Israel-Egypt; Israel-PLO; Israel-Jordan) came directly between the sides via secret contacts without outside mediation. Indeed, during the first years of the Oslo process, Israelis and Palestinians—to a fault—kept the Americans out.

Timing is Critical: Woody Allen was wrong. Ninety percent of life isn’t just showing up; it’s showing up at the right time. Ownership just doesn’t ripen like an orange on a tree; it’s driven by a sense of urgency, and that means the presence of sufficient pain and gain to change the locals’ calculations. Kissinger was able to negotiate three disengagement agreements in eighteen months because Israelis, Egyptians, Syrians felt compelled in the wake of the costly 1973 war to justify the sacrifices and to stabilize inherently unstable cease-fire lines. If the parties’ sense of urgency isn’t sync—one side feels some and the others don’t, then look out. This is partly what happened at the second Camp David in July 2000, where Barak and Clinton needed an agreement much more than Yasser Arafat needed one.

Nobody Gets 100%: The Rolling Stones got this one right: You get what you need, not always what you want. To do a deal that lasts requires a balance of interests where both leaders can convince themselves they got enough on the substance—and persuade their publics too. A third party mediator can often help to make the sale by being creative in packaging. But the substance has to be real. Sadat got a 100% of Sinai but no deal for the Palestinians. Begin got his separate peace with Egypt and kept the West Bank but had to dismantle every Sinai settlement.

A Credible Process: The so-called peace process—now in a coma—has gotten a bad name. And it’s easy to see why. But if you want to reach an agreement, you’ll need a process that’s credible all the same. Negotiations on complex issues involving identity, religion, security take time. Expectations need to be managed. And there must be a sense that the process—however difficult—is heading toward mutually agreeable goals. It would be nice to think that a process of direct negotiations is also critical to building trust required for an agreement. But this is also where a mediator comes in. Jimmy Carter kept Begin and Sadat apart at Camp David because they didn’t get along. Oslo, the most direct negotiating engagement between Israelis and Palestinians failed because, with no real mediator, it destroyed trust instead of creating it.

The 3rd Party: It would be nice to fantasize that the Arabs and Israelis could do this peace thing without the help of a third party, but history says no. Sure, the two sides often start the process. But the gaps are too wide, the mistrust too deep, and the need for assurances—economic, technical and security assistance—too great to go it alone. The Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was the exception, a DIY process between two countries that had been cooperating secretly for years.

So there you have it. Save your tuition money; forget the fancy degrees, and above all, if you’re interested in Middle East negotiations, put down those academic books. Get yourself to the nearest video store and rent West Side Story and the Godfather. That’s what real world negotiations look like.

Aaron David Miller is a Distinguished Scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. For two decades he served as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State.