Israel Reflections 2013–Is Trust Necessary?

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At the ABA Section on Dispute Resolution Annual Meeting last week, Senator George Mitchell spoke about Northern Ireland and how important hope and patience is for a peace process. On the other hand, and contrary to much that we read about in negotiation, he did not argue that trust is needed. Several of our speakers in Israel spoke about this as well.  The following blog from Nick Grode picks up on this theme:

Having returned from Israel, I find myself reflecting on what I have learned.  One of the most interesting lessons centers on the role of trust in conflict resolution.  While in Israel I had the pleasure of listening to Gershon Baskin [Baskin negotiated the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli solider held by Hamas for five years] and Moty Cristal [Cristal was last year’s ABA keynote speaker, a well-known negotiation expert involved in numerous Israeli-Palestinian issues] speak about the Middle East conflict.  Both commented on the lack of trust between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.

Interestingly, neither saw this lack of trust as a bar to peace. 

Rather, the two seemed to view the lack of trust as yet another challenge that could be surmounted with the proper framework. The seemingly minimal effect trust has on resolving this most complicated conflict made me curious as to how trust truly affects our everyday negotiations and how we should respond to situations where we cannot (or should not) trust the other side.  How are we to deal with others who have constantly breached agreements, lied, cheated, stole from us, or committed a host of other crimes against “civilized” conflict resolution?

The short answer would seem to involve not dealing with these opponents at all, and this is likely sound business policy (imagine the costs of coming to a public agreement with Arthur Anderson days before the Enron disaster went public).  Yet there are many times when we cannot choose who sits at the other side of the table.  As an intern at a District Attorney’s office, I see many instances where attorneys deal with parties they do not trust, and even though this situation is not ideal, plea agreements are still made and deals are still created.

It seems the true cost of trust is integration.  Third party enforcement mechanisms like the courts seem to remove the possibility that the agreement will not be adhered to, so the risk of actually being robbed of any agreement seems slim.  What is truly lost is the possibility of creating an integrative agreement.  It seems that without trust, parties are unable to share the information needed to create an agreement that truly meets each side’s interests; thus, parties are forced to settle for lesser agreements and less fulfillment than would have been had with even a minimal level of trust to build upon.

So in the end it seems that while trust is not essential to conflict resolution, trust remains an important part of allowing parties to meet their interests.  We can only hope that at least some Israelis and some Palestinians will be able to learn to trust each other so that someday we will all be able to experience true peace in the Middle East.

Cross posted at Indisputably.

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