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‘Getting to Yes’ in the Middle East

They said it couldn’t be done. But he did it. Monday night, John Kerry got Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to agree to eat a meal together for the first time in years. They say talks can’t make peace. But who knows without trying? One thing we know for sure is that peace doesn’t make itself.

How can Kerry succeed where so many others have failed? If he hasn't read it already, he ought to consider "Getting to Yes," a book written 32 years ago by Roger Fisher, a legendary theorist of negotiation at Harvard Law School. The book, an instruction manual for mediators, became a runway bestseller in the business world. But its lessons for diplomacy have been largely forgotten.

Fisher believed that whether you are pharmaceutical company or a terrorist group, the dynamics of negotiations are the same. Most deal-making begins with two sides haggling like a customer and a salesman at a flea market. The longer it goes on, the harder it gets. Demands thrown out to get a better bargain turn into "take-it-or-leave-it" propositions. Animosity creeps in. Compromise becomes defeat. Instead of reaching agreement, the goal becomes victory over the other side.


William Ury, co-author of "Getting to Yes," says it's a mediator's job to change that dynamic and get the parties to look beyond their fiercely held positions, so they can get to their core interests. Both sides have to stop haggling and focus instead on solving their shared problem.

If Israelis refuse to allow a Palestinian state within 2 miles of Ben Gurion Airport, a mediator could ask: What is Israel's core interest? Is it security? Is there a way to protect the airport, even if the border is nearby?

Fisher's passion for negotiation grew out of his service during World War II. He witnessed so much devastation that he devoted the rest of his life to avoiding conflicts. He founded the Harvard Negotiation Project, where he was known for posing questions that opened up possibilities: "What would be wrong with this solution?" He helped Ecuador's president, a former student, end a bloody dispute with Peru. He trained the South African National Congress on negotiation tactics.


In 1971, he published a slender book called "Dear Arabs Dear Israelis," full of suggestions for the Middle East conflict. Several years later, he invited Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to his summer home on Martha's Vineyard to strategize about making peace between Israel and Egypt. Fisher suggested that President Jimmy Carter draft the text of the treaty, but allow other leaders to critique it in back-and-forth sessions. The result was the historic Camp David Accords.

But over time, Fisher fell out of fashion.

"One of the problems of having 'Getting to Yes' out there for 30 years is that people say, 'Oh yeah, I know those ideas,' " said Bruce Patton, co-author of the book's revised edition. "But people don't know them well, and aren't able to execute well."

In recent years, US diplomats began to rely more on arm-twisting than brainstorming.

Fisher believed that President Clinton's peace effort in 2000 failed because he put too much pressure on Yasser Arafat to give up the Palestinian "right of return." Leaders need time to explore creative options without being forced to accept them right away.

"A different approach would be to say 'We reaffirm the right of return, but we'll . . . limit the number of returnees each year, and make the monetary offer to people who give up the right of return very attractive,' " Patton said.

After Clinton's failure, US officials under George W. Bush shied away from peace talks. Then they arranged for Israelis and Palestinians to meet without a strong mediator. Fisher knew that wouldn't work.


But by then, his memory was failing. He died last year, at the age of 90. Still, his ideas live on.

Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator at John Kerry's meetings this week, credits Fisher with helping him understand how Israelis view the conflict.

"Ever since I read Roger Fisher's work, my world has no longer been divided between pro-Israelis or pro-Arabs," he wrote recently to Daniel Shapiro, who worked with Fisher. "It is divided between those who are pro-peace and those against it."

If more people remembered Fisher's lessons, Kerry's peace talks just might stand a chance.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.