What it takes to mediate
Q: Israel's deadly attack on Turkish activists now confronts President Obama with a classic challenge for all sorts of leaders: How do you behave when a close friend and ally misbehaves?
In the present situation between Turkey and Israel, the president doesn't have the option of walking away and leaving them locked in battle. Maintaining a relationship with both is the ultimate goal but it will not be accomplished at the expense of eroding our own values and character or by not giving voice to the truth.
The decision to force ships through the Israeli blockade with well-known Turkish activists aboard, ostensibly to deliver food and medicine to the Palestinians in Gaza, is an invitation to aggression. Refusing to permit humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people already decimated by war and poverty is inhumane. Both are acts of violence.
The priorities of both parties can be addressed, but a resolution won't happen without the aid of a third party. Any hope of breaking this cycle of reactivity in that region rests with their mutual friend and ally: the United States. And the wisest way to proceed will be quite sophisticated and intricate but when striped to its essence won't be too different from the advice and counsel many of us were fortunate enough to receive from parents.
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying what is an extremely complex, centuries-old history of conflict that predates the existence of the United States, the answer to how a leader should respond to "misbehaving friends" can be found in the wise advice parents give when their offspring find themselves in the middle of a feud or fight between two parties with whom they are in relationship.
The first admonition is to listen to both with genuine concern and respect and without preconceived notions of who is right and who is wrong. Don't take sides prematurely. Listening at this level allows the parties to express their perspectives and vent the strong emotions that can interfere with good judgment. Listening without criticism and judgment allows a third party to begin to figure out what lies beneath the positions and to get beyond the "what" to the "why" so a solution can emerge.
Never ask warring parties to "make nice" or forgive each other prematurely. Buried hostilities can erupt with even greater force the next time. If the parties can calm down, they can see the value of dealing with their interests rather than just their positions. The next thing is to ask questions - not leading or rhetorical questions, but questions that require some degree of thought before responding. Whatever happens, don't fan the flames and don't publicly embarass your friends. Always talk to them privately first so they will trust you and not feel they were being blindsided or deliberately being held up for public ridicule. Tell them what you're going to say and why.
Two fighting parties need a solid, stable third party who can help them overcome their differences. A leader dealing with conflict has to have principles and courage and must know what when neither can be compromised. When the leader clearly understands what happened, and both parties' perspectives have been seriously considered, the leader has a responsibility to act., and it may be time for a second conversation with the parties. Here the leader must hold up the mirror so warring factions they can see their own motivations might be obstacles to resolution. President Carter went through 26 drafts with Begin and Sadat before they could come to an agreement.
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