Palestinians and the Peace Process: Some Modest Suggestions

January 29, 2020

By Patricia Sohn

Abstract. Most effectively to benefit from President Trump’s peace offer, Palestinians should attend to cross-cultural differences in negotiation practices and strategies.  They must find Palestinians who are local on Wall Street to translate the different negotiation cultures.  The offer includes too much that is important just to dismiss for ideological debates among the “haves.”

My grandfather spent most of his life on Wall Street.  He was vice president of one of the largest national-level (and multi-national) banks in the U.S. in the middle decades of the 20th century.  Those were good decades for the U.S., economically.  He was in charge of the Department of Statistics; it was the department that made the bank’s investment decisions. His was the department that chose how to invest your money if you deposited it with that bank.  He was also on the boards of directors of half a dozen other national banks and multi-national corporations.  He knew Wall Street very well.

My grandfather taught me a number of things that have stayed with me.  First, he said, never trust statistical models.  Obviously, this is not a popular position within my discipline, Political Science; however, he said, statistical models can be used to make any argument one wants to make regarding the human, social and political worlds.  You can trust simple descriptives (e.g., observations), he said, and simple comparisons between two descriptives.  Those are solid numbers, he taught me.  (Although, even descriptives can be manipulated if the methods of arriving at them are flawed, intentionally or not.) Beyond that, it all becomes pseudo-science (his words) and is almost always going to be delivered with someone’s political agenda affecting the numbers. To wit, the abject failure of most pollsters, with all their funds and servers working overtime, to predict the 2016 U.S. election outcome; with all modesty, I, expert on another region entirely and a political ethnographer at that — I called it. Perhaps having the (qualitative) pulse of the people matters after all. On that more later. In short, statistics can lead to very bad science.

That was my grandfather.  He was old-school.  He liked a slide rule and a physics calculator.  Nothing else.  Anything else is too easy to manipulate, he told me.  He encouraged me to make myself expert in qualitative methods instead of statistics because, he argued, you can learn more Truth from talking with people at the micro-level if you do it right (e.g., with some attention to representation, as well as not inserting your own agenda into their narratives through word choice or more overt interventions into the discourse).  He trusted math, so I studied math through calculus 1 in college.  But I never studied statistics.  I learned many rules of methods, ethics, and theory relating to qualitative methods, including in-depth interviews, eliciting narratives that were authentic to the people speaking, and evaluating those narratives for a range of patterns; participant observation; and other qualitative methods tools.

The other thing that my grandfather tried to teach me, and which I never learned very well, is the extent to which many moments are on-going negotiations.  My grandfather was Wall Street-made.  For Wall Street, everything is a negotiation – up to a point.  Then negotiations stop.  But, at the beginning, everything is a negotiation.

Trump has a more complex relationship with Wall Street, per se, however, it is almost a truism to say that he is Manhattan-business-community-made.   So, as Trump announced yesterday his Middle East Peace initiative with plans to establish a Palestinian state, I want to encourage Palestinians to read him seriously when he says this is a negotiation. That is, culturally, for many of us, the offer sounds like a fait accompli, not a starting point but an ending offer and the answer is, therefore – as the press keeps telling us from the Palestinian side, “No.”

That is not how negotiations are done in the tradition of Wall Street.  I don’t know how much leverage Palestinians have to push and pull and make offers.  But, if I were a Palestinian negotiator, I would be on the phone to some great Palestinian business men and women on Wall Street getting their ideas for how to talk to Trump; the scope of possibility to demand more; specifically, through what methods to do so; and how to translate Trump’s offer into something with which Palestinians can be happy.  I would not engage in satisficing now, I would be seeking happiness for the Palestinian people on the ground.  And, importantly, I would treat this negotiation not only as a cross-cultural engagement between Middle East and West.  I would treat it also as a cross-cultural engagement between Middle Eastern models of politesse and reciprocity, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Manhattan business community negotiation etiquette.  That is, I would start with optimism rather than fatalism and get some great Palestinian business people from Manhattan on the negotiating team.  Cultures matter.  Where one can find overlapping cultures of commonality, it could be very important to outcomes.

The offer is worth keeping – expanding what Palestine has for itself, perhaps, but it offers too much just to throw away.  And it is not a given that it would come again.

The second thing that I would be doing, learning from my grandfather’s Wall Street advice, is talking with people at the micro-level.  My grandfather spent a lot of time canvassing people in Manhattan, meeting with leaders or taking lunch in small, local restaurants in Harlem and other areas of the city and boroughs.  It was his way to keep in touch with what the people were needing and what they were thinking as it affected his ambit of decision making in his bank – which could, at times, affect a lot of people to say the least.  New York City was a microcosm of the country, he used to say. You could find people in New York who represented almost any part of the country. He was one, amongst others, who helped to bring visibility to people like Etta James and Jimi Hendrix.  He did that by being present in unexpected pockets of the city — himself, not through advisers or pollsters. He said, you have to do it yourself. Use your own sensibilities to get to the heart of what is going on for people. He tried hard to be a man in touch with the pulse of many parts of the communities that make up our people.  It is one of his traditions of which I am most proud.

If I were Mahmoud Abbas, I would be talking with Palestinian mayors all around the West Bank and Gaza, canvassing them to find out what the people at the local level need, materially and otherwise, and what they want, in terms of political institutions and otherwise.  Surveys can be misleading.  Advisers almost always have their own agendas. Palestinian mayors have the pulse of the people.  What are the people saying?  For, materially and in terms of political institutions, the outcome of negotiations has to satisfy the people to a degree sufficient to maintain both compliance and local engagement with the peace at the micro-level.  It does not work to beat people into submission in the long run. They have to want to support and participate in the peace. If they do not, then we end up right back where we started; the shaab, the people, the street matters in the Arab world and across the Middle East.

For example, for Jerusalem to be capital of both states does not require that it be a divided city.  What are the criteria that Trump needs to allow for it?  Do Palestinians want one or two of the settlements for themselves?  They are beautiful housing.  I would approach it as all about numbers.  Trump clearly has a number in mind to make it worth the while of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to support the peace.  Do Palestinians prefer that number in funds (if they feel those funds will be safeguarded for the people within the new state by their leaders over time), or in material or real assets divided at the micro-level?  Do Palestinians want western institution-builders in place as advisers to ensure that some long-past misuses of funds and power not be repeated?  Do they want leadership schools in state theory and studies of institution-building for local politicians and those aspiring to the same?  Do they want scholarships for Palestinians to U.S. universities to study the same; or to study water and other resource management, business, forestry, engineering, law, and the like?  Some Palestinians might prefer that at least some of those U.S. funds go into Palestinian human capital development rather than cash dollars to the state.  In that way, Palestinians at the micro-level could be assured that some of those funds will help them directly and not only people who already have significant resources.  It could also contribute to creating generations who have the tools and skills to build, develop, and lead themselves consistently over time rather than running short after a generation or two.

In short, in the cultural tradition of Wall Street, I would want to encourage the Palestinian leadership to treat this existing offer as a negotiation.  One cannot ask for the Sky in a negotiation, but Wall Street types among Palestinians should have specific suggestions regarding how to negotiate with a business man and world-maker like Trump.  We could have peace in our time – and abundance.

In my opinion, Palestinians are not going to get a better offer than this one for a very long time. Is it worth making the people at the grassroots level suffer for another 150 years because of differences, in the now, in cultures and political ideologies amongst the “haves”?? People are suffering to degrees that are unfathomable; I have seen it with my own eyes. It is inhumane to say the least. It should not be allowed to continue so that someone in a plush office in Toronto or D.C. can feel happy to have made a personal ideological victory against Trump, or anyone else.

This proposal is the first concretely offering a Palestinian state. Don’t like the criteria? Negotiate them. But, please, take advantage of this moment and this deal and use Palestinian folks who know and are Wall Street — as much as you might not like Wall Street, and even more because you might not like it — to help with the translation process and make the most of it for Palestinians on the ground.


Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society.

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