Monday, August 30, 2010

Peace Talk Pundits - Assessing or Defining the Reality?

In the past few weeks, a great number of experts (and so-called experts) have written a spate of editorials predicting the failure of the upcoming negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians slated to begin September 2. The articles run the gammit from well-reasoned to spurious, and every shade in between. But with the notable exception of Martin Indyk and a few others, bloggers and commentators have jumped on the bandwagon of peace talk failure.

I too have expressed serious skepticism about the fate of the upcoming peace talks. Lack of political salience, and a failure to take account of radical actors are traps the parties have fallen into before. These traps have not been adequately accounted for this time around. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has little to lose politically by failing to make peace. So does Palestinian President Abbas. Hamas and radical elements of the settler movement have not gone away simply because the focus has been shifted off of them.

Yet in this age of unprecedented access to opinion and information, we know the power perceptions have. The general perception, at least in Washington, appears to be general skepticism about the success of peace talks. Yet the assessment itself has implications for that which it is assessing. Analysts are used to peering into the snow globe of Middle East politics. We are not used to our observations themselves having a role.

Simply by saying that meaningful peace is unlikely from these talks, analysts are shaping a reality different from that which would exist absent their assessment. So what is the obligation of an analyst who hopes peace talks will succeed, but expects them to fail?

The question seems esoteric and academic, but its origins are exactly the opposite. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more than just an area of interest for those who study it. Those who follow the blow-by-blow of the conflict know better than anyone the human toll this conflict has taken on Israelis and Palestinians alike. Yet when an bleak opportunity for peace presents itself, do we assess it as an opportunity, or as bleak? How do we navigate the conflict which emerges between advocating for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and pursuing the truth which says the odds are against them?

I posit four ways in which analysts who are pessimistic about upcoming negotiations can balance between the competing interests of accuracy and humanitarianism:

1) Be deliberate. Analysts need to recognize the power of their assessments. That doesn't mean they never assess negotiations as unlikely to produce peace. It does mean they consider the real-life consequences of that assessment before writing or speaking.

2) Be specific. What specifically will be the cause of failure in the peace talks? What in particular are policymakers overlooking? This more focused assessment is not only better analysis, but gives decision-makers a concise list of factors to take into consideration and potentially to even adapt.

3) Assess at the margin. Saying peace talks are likely to fail is a legitimate assessment. Saying peace talks will inevitable fail is not. There is a potentially infinite number of factors that will impact the ultimate outcome of talks. Analysts should be careful to frame their assessments as statements of probability, rather than seer-saying. Such statements are poor analytical form, and irresponsible.

4) Be proactive about identifying opportunities for peace. The truly credible voice on Middle East peace is one which identifies chances for progress not only when the topic of peace hits the top 5 topics in the news cycle. It is pessimistic when conditions look bleak, but optimistic when openings for progress towards peace exist.

Being deliberate about the consequences of our assessments is the key to speaking truth to power while not forgetting those impacted by those assessments. Deliberateness and responsibility truly do justice not only to those who making policy based on our assessments, but also do justice to those men and women in the Middle East impacted by them.

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