On the sixth day of our trip, we met with an Israeli security and negotiation expert Ron Schatzberg. Ron works for the Tel Aviv-based think tank, the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), whose mission is to promote a stable, peaceful and prosperous two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ron gave us a geopolitical perspective on the conflict by taking us into the country-side so that we could view the geography of the situation first-hand from several Jerusalem hilltops. From a hilltop perch, one can see much of the city, the occupied West Bank, and Palestinian controlled Ramallah. What strikes you immediately from this vantage point is how compact the country is and how closely Jewish and Palestinian West Bank neighborhoods are in proximity to one another, but in most instances remain isolated socially and culturally.
Ron first turned our attention to the 2.4 square kilometers that comprise the Temple Mount area of the old city of Jerusalem. This small patch of land contains three of the most revered Holy Sites in the world. These sites include the Western Wall that is the last intact remains of the Second Jewish Temple, which is the holiest site in which Jews are permitted to enter and pray. Also located here is the the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims tradition holds that the Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven.
Lastly, within a few hundred yards of both these sites, sits the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Christ was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. Ron says that the Temple Mount is the “mouth of the volcano” of the region because what happens here can ignite the region in conflict. The Temple Mount area exists in a state of high tension, poised to erupt in violence at the least provocation. Such violence and conflict, Ron explained, easily could spread regionally or even globally. For Ron, the Temple Mount area personifies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it captures both the religious and national character of the dispute. Any peace agreement, he emphasizes, must grapple with the difficult question of sovereignty of this unique confluence of important religious and cultural sites that would permit pilgrims of all faiths to live, visit and worship here freely and safely.
As both a member of a policy think tank and retired Colonel in the Israeli military, Ron comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as both outsider and insider. His think tank, ECF, participates in what is known as “track-two” negotiations. Track-two negotiations are typically conducted by mid-level government officials or, like Ron, informal advisors that negotiate with counterparts of similar status on the other side of the conflict. The value of track-two negotiations is that they can usually be conducted out of the public eye to develop potential solutions without being subject to public criticism too early in the process or undue political pressure. Track-two negotiations, which complement track-one negotiations conducted by high level government officials or members of their official negotiating team, have proven useful in other international negotiations. Ron believes that track-two negotiations are particularly appropriate in this conflict to keep the problem-solving dialogue going between the parties. In today’s political climate where the Israeli and Palestinian constituents are weary of peace talks that have produced little real peace, politicians—whether Israeli or Palestinian—who engage in formal public peace talks often suffer significant political costs, risking influence and political position.
In any formal peace process, Ron believes that a slow, deliberate, and phased approach to building peace is the most sustainable one. He advises that we should start with one or two important but easier issues, and then build on that agreement. Two issues he thinks are good candidates with which to start negotiations are “recognition” and “borders.” Regarding recognition, Ron explains that the state of Israel should recognize the right of the Palestinians to form a state, and Palestinians should recognize the right of Israel to form a Jewish state. There are many more issues that the parties would need to resolve, but Ron believes that the participants should address the sovereignty issue of the Temple Mount area last because it will be the most difficult to resolve. We, as dispute resolution scholars and teachers, recognize this strategy as starting with easier issues and then moving to harder ones with the purpose of leveraging the momentum of smaller, easier agreements and the building of trust over time to help negotiators surmount harder issues later in the negotiation. But one leaves Israel feeling that there are no easy issues or solutions.
When he met with us, Ron had just come off a period of track-two negotiations that did not end as fruitfully as he would have wished, so he admitted that his optimism for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine had been dampened of late. But the last stop on our geopolitical tour gave me, and I think others in our group, hope that peace is possible in this region. We toured the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel who is revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Indeed, as with many sites in Israel, all three faiths have a had a hand in the physical structure that memorializes Samuel’s Tomb. Christians originally built the structure as a church, then Muslims turned into a mosque, and Jews also created a small synagogue located near the tomb itself. Now, both Jews and Muslims use the site for worship, coordinating times and activities. We encountered this kind of inter-faith cooperation at other places in Jerusalem during our visit. These small but meaningful pockets of cooperation among the people of different faiths and cultures in Jerusalem demonstrated to me that cooperation and respect is possible among people embroiled in this conflict, which augers well for the possibility of achieving a functional peace within this multi-religious, multicultural and vibrant community at a regional level.