When we think of peace talks—such as the upcoming round of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the first of such public encounters in years—we mostly imagine somber coat-and-tie delegations discussing border demarcations, security arrangements, displaced populations, and other life-and-death staples of violent conflict.
But in reality, much of the energy of mediators is spent dealing with far more mundane problems such as how much to tell the media, who is seated where and when food is served. Surprisingly, such arrangements often turn out to be of first-order importance to the outcome of talks.
It is common knowledge among negotiators and scholars that every little detail pertaining to the negotiating room matters and consumes a great deal of planning.
"The details reflect the conflict as a whole, and that the parties want their understanding reflected also in practicalities," said Peter Wallensteen, the director of the University of Uppsala’s Conflict Data Program and the co-author of the book The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and the Styles of Mediation, in an email.
But just how extravagant the seemingly superficial arrangements can get may come as a shock to most people.
For example, when Iraqis and Iranians attempted to end their atrocious war in the 1980s, their representatives refused to face each other—much less to address each other directly. Consequently, the United Nations team was forced to invent a special triangular table for the talks, so that each delegation would face the mediators and talk to them instead.
Cited in The Go-Between, the Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, a key member of the team, recounts how he and his colleagues purposefully deprived the Iraqis and Iranians of coffee for prolonged periods of time in order to induce them to eventually talk to each other over a warm cup. Subsequently they kept them talking for long hours so as not to give them a chance to walk away from the negotiations.
The delegates frequently threatened to leave, and so the negotiators went so far as to set up a spying post at the airport to confirm whether any preparations for departure were being made and whether the threats were serious or were simply negotiating tricks designed to elicit further concessions.
But such police tactics are only part of a negotiator’s toolbox. Well-timed humor, too, is very important.
Elsewhere in The Go-Between, Eliasson recalls how he once told a stern-faced general from Myanmar’s military junta that he too was a general—an under-secretary-general. "Between us generals…shouldn’t we make a deal," he reportedly asked, amid laughters. "And so we did!"
The long history of Israeli-Arab talks is also rife with similar anecdotes. It is hard to suppress a smile when we imagine the top Israeli and Jordanian leadership, "disguised by wigs, Arab headdresses, floppy hats and dark sunglasses," descending on the White House in 1993 to shake hands because they did not want the public to discover their identities prematurely. For the record, the New York Times reminds us, the influential late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir too dressed up as an "Arab peasant woman" once in order to meet with the Jordanians secretly.
An indirect account of the Oslo negotiations in the early 1990s, which Wallensteen shared in a separate email, goes as follows:
"The Norwegians left the room and closed the doors. Thus, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were left to themselves, and the Norwegians were sitting outside, waiting anxiously while hearing angry voices, as well as laughter. After a while a red-faced negotiator came out of the room, with the Norwegians expecting the worst. Instead the person shouted: 'Don’t you have anything here to eat?' Getting the food, he went back and the negotiations continued."
Food, of course, has a special significance in the Middle East.
In a recent interview with the Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recounted how, in order to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to talk to him in 2006, he had his wife cook Abbas’s favorite dishes, and told him that not showing up would offend her. It worked, and they made considerable progress, though an agreement was not finalized.
Lest we forget, the current peace negotiations, too, started over the breaking of bread in Washington, D.C.
But while a well-prepared menu and a joke or two may help get people talking, there are certainly more somber logistical issues on the minds of those involved: One is how much exactly to tell the media about what is going on.
In the case of the current talks, as in many other cases, there is little agreement. On the one hand, the secretive approach of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has drawn a lot of criticism.
But on the other hand, the prominent Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who mediated the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011, told me earlier this year that, "There’s no scenario in my mind that Israelis and Palestinians could succeed through public diplomacy, only through secret negotiations."
The veteran American negotiator Aaron David Miller recently came up with a list of five things that can tell us "if this process is on the right track and won’t become just another woulda/shoulda/coulda enterprise." These include the existence of written agreements and maps, bridging proposals, and the amount of distance both Kerry and President Obama keep from the talks.
It is by no means an exhaustive list. The make-up of the negotiating teams, the way each stage of the talks is structured, and the trust-building measures being implemented, among other issues, have attracted the attention of analysts.
Of course, while logistics may have a grossly disproportionate impact on negotiations, they cannot make the big issues miraculously disappear. Perhaps the greatest paradox in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that while most analysts continue to be skeptical about the outcome of the talks, the outlines of a deal are more or less known—or at least can be guessed. The influential Jerusalem-based journalist, Ben Birnbaum, recently published in The New Republic a comprehensive account of how the "five core issues" could be resolved.
Unfortunately, by most accounts the two-state solution is on its last legs. If the current chance is missed, another one may not come in a while. Activists and analysts caution that "chaos and violence" could be just around the corner.
For the sake of Israelis and Palestinians—and perhaps the entire Middle East—let us hope that Kerry and his team get all the details right.