Middle East Conflict Intractable, Not Hopeless

April 22, 2010

After his last "International Security Affairs" class of the fall semester, Bob Axelrod graded student papers, then hurried to the airport to catch a flight to Damascus, the capital city of Syria. His goal: to interview Middle East leaders to better understand how they perceive the ongoing conflict. This was Axelrod's third trip to the Middle East as a scientific delegate for the World Federation of Science Permanent Monitoring Panel on the Motivations for Terrorism.

In 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bob Axelrod was a second year math major at the University of Chicago, looking for worthwhile applications for his theoretical training. That October, as President Kennedy warned the country of dozens of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba aimed at the U.S., national anxiety reached new heights. The Walgreen Professor for the Study of Human Understanding, in his characteristic understated way, says he decided then that, "it sure would be useful to understand the apparent madness of nuclear deterrence."

"If the Cuban Missile Crisis exploded, or some other crisis exploded," Axelrod explains, "100 million people would have died. We had thousands of big rockets—with hydrogen bombs instead of atom bombs. And there were a series of crises; it wasn't just that one. People forget that, but there was the Korean War, the downing of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, and the sudden construction of the Berlin Wall as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a scary time."

Since that time, Bob Axelrod has spent his entire career—a long and distinguished one—employing rigorous formal and empirical methods to further our understanding of conflict and cooperation. He's looked at conflicts of interest, bureaucratic decision-making, negotiation, argumentation, deception, aggression, tit for tat strategies, and sacred barriers to conflict resolution—among other things. His book, The Evolution of Cooperation, which offers strategies for promoting cooperation, has been translated into ten different languages and has been cited thousands of times.

Today, Axelrod is applying his considerable expertise in conflict and cooperation to the Middle East as part of a small group—appointed by the World Federation of Science after the 9/11 attacks—exploring the motivations for terrorism. Other group members include Scott Atran, visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan, and Lord John Alderdice, chair of the delegation and one of the main negotiators of the Good Friday Accord, which reconciled the parties involved in the Northern Ireland conflict.

Together, this delegation has interviewed leading figures from Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, and Jordan. In Israel, for example, Axelrod and his colleagues have met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as leaders of the country's National Security Council, legislature (Knesset), and Likud and Kadima parties. The delegation has spent equal amounts of time with Palestinian leaders including Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas; Ramadan Shallah, the leader of Islamist Jihad; and leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. This December, on their trip to Syria, the group also interviewed the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, and Minister of Irrigation, Nader al-Brunni.

Why does this delegation focus on Middle East leaders when violence against civilians has been used as a tactic in many conflicts around the world? Because many view the Middle East clash to be the most pressing conflict in the world today, with repercussions that extend far beyond the boundaries of the countries involved. In addition, most of the major terrorist attacks over the last few decades can be linked back to factions in the Middle East.

As a result, to understand the motivations for violent attacks on civilians, it's important to understand the root of the Middle East conflict: the 10,000-square-mile slice of land the Jews call Israel, the Arabs call Palestine, and everyone seems to call the Promised Land. "It's the too promised land," says Axelrod. "It's been promised to too many people."

Two different religious communities—the Jews and the Muslims—have historic and religious ties to the land: both regard it as sacred. But the dozens of different factions within these communities disagree over how to resolve the conflict.

Think about the Middle East clash as a ball of knotted yarn. You pull at a strand to try to unravel it, and another section tightens. You try to address that section, and three others become further entangled. And there aren't just one or two knotted strands—there are dozens: each religion, each government, each faction, each leader, each follower. Each views the conflict differently; each condones different political and tactical strategies; and each is defensive about its position. But each is also—some to a greater and some to a lesser degree—willing to communicate; willing, perhaps, to negotiate.

That space where communication and understanding may be possible is what interests Bob Axelrod and his peers. But they're not negotiators or mediators, he cautions, "We're not doing diplomacy here." Rather, they are scientists- meeting with leaders to better understand an extremely complex conflict and share their understanding with others. What does each party hold sacred? How do they frame the conflict? Which historical analogies guide their thinking? Where might they be willing to compromise?

As scientists, Axelrod and his colleagues have a distinct advantage during meetings like these. Because they aren't expected to negotiate and don't trigger memories of past offenses, it can be easier for them to communicate. One of the leaders they met said he can respond with threats when he feels threatened; but during his meeting with the delegation, he came across as avuncular and pleasant. Another leader they met with, who heads up an organization with a reputation for violence and recently survived a botched assassination attempt, seemed fair and reasonable during their discussions. These leaders may use forceful rhetoric in other situations, but in an academic conversation, they're much more willing to talk.

In talking with these men, Axelrod and his colleagues have learned some important lessons about the Middle East conflict and the potential for cooperation—findings that at times make their way to the diplomats and policy makers trying to resolve the conflict. The group took two important lessons away from their most recent conversations with the overall leader of Hamas and with the Foreign Minister of Syria.

First, the group believes that policy makers concerned about fostering lasting peace in the Middle East should probably focus their energies on negotiations with Syria, a nation that seeks the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. To Syria, the Golan Heights is valuable because it affords access to the freshwater Lake Tiberius (in the arid Middle East, access to fresh water is crucial) and, in Axelrod's words, "a deal on the Golan Heights does not involve religious values. It doesn't have biblical connotations because it's on the far side of Jordan."

When it comes to conflict, explains Axelrod, it's worth understanding your opponent's sacred, or inviolable, values. In the case of the Middle East conflict, the city of Jerusalem is sacrosanct to Jews, Muslims, and Christians—making the conflict over rights to the capital city highly charged. Just as a devout Hindu wouldn't accept any sum of money for a sacred cow, devout Muslims and Jews would be offended by offers to exchange money or concessions for a sacred piece of land. But other Israeli-occupied lands in the area—lands that are not sacred, per se—can be returned as symbolic gestures, thereby building trust and opening a path toward normalization of relations.

Second, Axelrod highlights the group's discovery that there is a huge divide between the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Hamas charter and the current rhetoric of the Hamas leadership. In their two-and-a-half hour discussion with the overall leader of Hamas, Ramadan Shallah, he mentioned eight historical analogies for the Middle East conflict, Axelrod recounted. Some, like the Oslo Accord, which Shallah felt wasn't handled in a democratic way, he shared as negative lessons that could never be repeated. Others, like the international pressures that ended the Serbian occupation of Kosovo, were positive lessons that he hoped (but did not expect) could be repeated to end Israeli occupation.

Why does Axelrod care about these historical analogies? Why should anyone? Because political leaders often use historical analogies to share the experiences that guide their thinking. They are, as Axelrod puts it, ways of ‘framing' the Middle East conflict. The events of the conflict are the same for all parties, but each party's view of them is different. The analogies Ramadan Shallah shared with Axelrod and his colleagues during their meeting clarified how the Hamas leader saw the world, including his frustration with the lack of active support from Arab governments, his take on the causes of the failure of the Oslo peace process, and Hamas's sense that history is on its side.

Some conflicts are quickly resolved, incurring limited damages. Others last longer and threaten the safety of more parties. Still others last for decades, even centuries, with one generation passing the legacy of fear and hostility on to the next. These conflicts—some of the most dangerous in the world—are often categorized as intractable. They're obstinate, deadly conflicts that go on and on. The Middle East conflict falls into this category; as does the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. But the conflict in Northern Ireland—entering its twelfth year of peace since the historic Belfast Agreement that Lord John Alderdice helped broker—is over, as is the Cold War that inspired Axelrod to dedicate his career to the study of conflict and cooperation.

Find articles & papers by Axelrod
Based on his work in the Middle East, Axelrod has published policy-oriented papers on how to deal with sacred values in seemingly intractable conflict. These papers have appeared in Science and in The Negotiation Journal, and are available on his personal web page at www-personal.umich.edu/~axe/.

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2010 State & Hill here.