Positional vs Interest Bargaining – the Dilemma in Diplomacy

As the dust settled on the Camp David Accords on the 17th of September 1978, world leaders, international relations analysts and scholars wondered how such a gargantuan agreement between two diametrically opposed foreign policies, leaders and states, could be concluded with the help of US President Jimmy Carter.  The Camp David Accords were a momentous agreement, signed between USA, Egypt and Israel in order to bring peace in the Middle East, and to set forth a structure for collaboration between the signatories.

After fourteen months of negotiations and shuttle diplomacy, the two agreements were signed at the infamous Presidential retreat location.  The two agreements were known as “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East” and “A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel”.  The former was highly criticised, and quite rightly so, for not including Palestine or the Palestinian Liberation Organisation representatives in the agreement.  In fact, the UN condemned this framework, all partial agreements, and separate treaties that did not meet the Palestinian rights and comprehensive solutions to peace in Resolutions 34/70 and 34/65 B. 

The latter, however, was quoted as one of the more successful conflict resolution achievements in history.  The efforts of the protagonists, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat, would also be rewarded with the shared Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, who until then, were not on speaking terms.  This begs the question, how did these three leaders, and their diplomatic staff, manage to procure such an important agreement?

The key was the focus on Interest-based bargaining rather than Positional bargaining.  Conflict is a perceived divergence of interests, meaning that when two parties are in conflict, they believe that their ultimate goals are incompatible with each other.  A position is usually one where a conflicting party does not wish to derogate from, and these positions are not mutable or malleable.  When parties continue to argue based on their positions, it is rare that any compromise can be sought and impasses in diplomatic relations are common. 

However, these positions are not necessarily what the parties’ deep-rooted interests and needs are.  Interests and needs are often easier to reconcile since they can be satisfied in a variety of ways, while positions can typically only be satisfied through their achievement.  Conflicts are harder to resolve if they concern values, culture or identity, which are often non-negotiable.  However, the same principle can be applied by identifying basic human needs, as identified by John Burton such as identity, security and survival.  These needs lie at the roots of all motives.  Intractable conflicts, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict can be resolved when needs are satisfied.  Therefore, the solution is to distinguish between these diametrically opposed positions and their underlying interests and needs. This solution was the exact method utilised in 1978.

Both Israel and Egypt claimed sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula, an area rich in minerals due to its proximity to the Red Sea, and a prime strategic military location in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The positions of acquiring Sinai were thus incompatible, since both parties cannot annex the same land.  However, Carter identified that Egypt’s real interests were due to national territorial integrity.  The land was, for many years, considered to be Egyptian soil and was thus vital to Egypt for the peninsula to remain part of the Arab Republic.  On the other hand, Israel’s main interests were about security, since Sinai was often used as the entry point for Egyptian forces to invade Israeli territory.  Therefore, by identifying the needs of the two parties a compromise was able to be reached.

Of course, by no means is distinguishing between positions, interests and needs an easy matter.  This distinction is often the fruit of hard work of third-party mediators (in this case, the USA) and the goodwill between the two leaders (Begin and Sadat). 

The ramifications of the Accords were enormous.  The Arab world’s perception of Egypt changed.  Now Egypt was no longer seen as the standard bearer for Arab identities.  It was now viewed as an Arab state that would abandon its values for peace.  Moreover, the Accords also prompted the dissolution of the united Arab opposition to Israel.  Egypt’s realignment with the west fashioned Saddam Hussein and Iraq to claim the vacant seat of leader of the Arab world in the region.  Interestingly enough, Carter’s efforts were perceived as a sort of juxtaposition, in that he attempted to break from the traditional US policy tradition of being totally pro-Israel, but instead, he ended up enforcing it even further, by excluding the people of Palestine, breaking up the Arab alliance through working with Egypt, whilst also securing Israel. 

However, the Camp David Accords demonstrated that negotiation between the Arab World and Israel.  Progress can be achieved through sustained communication, cooperation, and the focus on interests and needs rather than their predetermined positions.