When Will They Every Learn? by Carrie Menkel-Meadow

I am delighted to post here a guest blog from Carrie Menkel-Meadow:

On the eve of the Israeli bombing of Hamas sites in Gaza, I returned from the most recent of two trips to Israel and the West Bank.  My mission, as a conflict resolution expert, practitioner and teacher, is to facilitate learning about conflict.  My work was both at the highest levels, with members of the Knesset, key Israeli negotiators at Camp David, Annapolis, members of the Palestinian legislature, and Washington officials, and with a grassroots peace group, the Parents Circle-Family Forum.  The latter group is comprised of 500 Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost family members in the conflict and are seeking to raise awareness for possible reconciliation through personal narrative. At both levels, participants seem to have tried everything they can, but cannot make any progress? Why not?


One answer, common to most intractable conflicts is that the “high level” decision makers and grassroots activists do not talk to each other. Higher level officials (called “transactional” or “professional” negotiators by many) are often dismissive of the “transformative” level of NGOs, grassroots and other peace and reconciliation groups, calling them ineffective, “soft” or “the peace industry.”  Families who choose reconciliation, human understanding, dialogue or even forgiveness are inconvenient to those who both seek revenge at the state or individual level and those who need to make official policy.    These levels of engagement often have different world views. Some think that leaders were out in front of the people during the Oslo Accords (now widely regarded as a failure). My recent experience demonstrates that now the Israeli military and civilian leadership and Hamas lag behind what most ordinary Israelis and Palestinians want – a normal life. Note I did not say peace or full reconciliation – just “normal.”


A second answer is that despite the development of some rudimentary conflict handling knowledge, no one seems to act on core concepts of conflict resolution:

·           It is much harder to de-escalate after an escalation than it is to slowly escalate from relative calm;

·           Demonization by one side produces more demonization by the other side. (Have Jews learned nothing from the Holocaust? Have Sunnis and Shi’ias learned nothing from civil wars throughout the world, irrespective of national borders?);

·           Firm deadlines (like the “ending the ceasefire in Gaza on December 19, or the false deadlines at Camp David in 2000) are often the enemy of more subtle and detailed partial trust-building negotiated agreements;

·           Conflict is dynamic and interactive. No matter what the strategy or long-range planning used on any one “side” of a conflict–what the other “side(s)” do and how they will respond is often unpredictable and can spiral out of control or lead to “viral” spreading and impact;

·          Ripeness is for fruit, not conflict resolution. It is wrong-headed to say that conflicts must be “ripe” for resolution (enough pain and intolerance of the status quo to motivate parties to come to the table). Unlike fruits that are ripe for only a few days, people are always “ripe,” for talking, for negotiating, for attempts to figure out something new.


In my work with multiple levels and multiple “sides” of this seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it appears as if we have learned little from thousands of years of human conflict. The Europeans (who took at least 1,000 years of violence to make a lasting peace) urge the parties of the Middle East to make peace in 60 years (without fully acknowledging their own colonial responsibility for the arbitrary borders that are part of the conflict). We Americans, from a safe distance, scold, cajole or tolerate behaviors that we wouldn’t if they were closer to home. (This includes thinking about how the US would react if Mexico repeatedly fired rockets into San Diego, but also how our democracy would respond if we used excessive force, killing innocent civilians , to eliminate a potential terrorist group in Canada.) Virtually nobody who acts in this situation takes the full measure of what, in my field, we call, not “collateral damage” but multi-party conflict. Once two sides start a conflict, there is no telling how others affected by the conflict (neighborhoods, refugees, allies, enemies, “frenemies”) will join in, supporting one side or taking advantage of or profiting from the conflict.


It is the ordinary people, families, workers, and students, who live the conflict and its costs every day. They are the ones seeking new solutions, new ways of talking, activities to do together, whether playing sports, seeking cultural exchanges, or recognizing what Mark Twain so eloquently said in his masterpiece “The War Prayer,” that while one side is praying for victory (and the death that is inevitable to victory), so is the other side doing the same “to us.”



If there is one salutary effect of the current escalation, it is that it provides a new opportunity to stop the old ways of trying to resolve conflict. In my view, as well as  the view of the younger generation of my Arab and Israeli students in the region, it is time that either the “professionals”  learn something about conflict “handling” (not necessarily “resolution”) principles, or they should turn the conflict over to those who have suffered and still prefer no killing to downward spirals of revenge and more death — the ordinary people who do want some form of human flourishing (whether full peace and reconciliation, or simply co-existence). The “transformative” human level of pain and suffering must inform the formal “transactional” levels of military and diplomatic actions. Or maybe, as Bob Dylan wrote, and Peter, Paul and Mary sang “How many wars will it take before we learn that too many people have died?”   “When will we ever learn?”


3 thoughts on “When Will They Every Learn? by Carrie Menkel-Meadow”

  1. This conflict has gone on for way too long. It would be interesting to see what would happen if a mediator sat down with the parties and actually tried to use conflict resolution principles. As you stated, the first step would be to get the leaders to actually discuss their interests. The interested leaders must sit down and discuss different negotiation “packages” that can be created. It seems like the parties are looking at the situation as a zero-sum issue. However, there are very little conflicts that are actually zero-sum disputes. The parties need to work at inventing new options, instead of just continuing to argue over the same options that have been on the table for way too long.

    The demonization has to stop. Trust is impossible to establish when such behavior is taking place. Little to nothing will be accomplished until some element of trust is built.

  2. I’d make two comments.

    First, it really helps to superimpose maps of metroplex areas against the middle east to get a feeling for scale. Superimpose Israel against Los Angeles County, or Dallas-Fort Worth or New York City to get an idea of just how small the area involved is, and you get a completely different feeling.

    Second, the problem with Oslo is the way that people cheated on the end, not the process itself. I would add to the list of things people have not learned is that trying to subvert a process only results in more trouble, not less.

  3. What drives me nuts about this whole situation is that when the high-level decision makers get close to a deal, some fringe group carries out a few attacks and the whole thing unravels.

    It’s AS IF they prefer the comfortable familiarity of conflict to the uncertainty of unaccustomed peace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.