Middle Ground is not Common Ground

Posted by Brian S. Beck, M.A. on November 08, 2010  /   Posted in Articles

Middle ground is compromise; common ground is problem-solving.  Although most disputes are settled through middle ground, common ground is necessary to resolve them, especially when the conflicts are intense and pro-longed.

Three recent peace efforts show that compromises may not solve conflicts and may just stall violence. In fact, the United States should pay critical attention to this as it re-engages in one of the most prolonged peace efforts of the last century — the Middle East peace process.

Compromise, or middle ground, takes place when parties trade off demands — foregoing some to keep others.  But that only addresses the symptoms of conflict, not its causes.  In situations of intense conflicts, middle ground will only hide tensions until those tensions boil over.  When the stakes are low, people might accept compromises and look past the causes of the conflict, but when the stakes are high, parties are likely to continue to hold on to grievances and continue the conflict.

When groups in conflict address the causes of their conflict, they are required to acknowledge the aspiration, stories and fears of the other side, and to treat them equally and fairly.  When parties look beyond demands and at the causes of the problem, they see commonalities that all human beings seek and need, such as respect, recognition, acceptance, validation, security, dignity, prosperity and so forth.  These commonalities tie us together as a network of people.  When parties see that they are pursuing the same interests and needs, they can begin to develop solutions to resolve the conflict.

A brief look at some contemporary peace agreements shows that compromise has failed to solve conflicts.  For example, the Comprehensive Peace Agreements for Sudan formally ended the civil war between South Sudanese rebels and the central authority in Khartoum, but they did nothing to resolve the issues that led to war — inequality between North and South, poverty (particularly in the South), discrimination against Southerners, and the unsettled status between North and South Sudanese.  This is why the latest indications are South Sudanese will vote to secede from Sudan, and why peacemakers fear the return of civil war.

Similarly, the Dayton Accords, which was forced on the warring parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has failed to create a single political and social entity.  The Accords completely avoided the issues that led to war — demands for ethnic self-determination, Serbian anger for losing  Yugoslavia, the distrust between the different communities, and their unsettled status from its break up.  Since the reasons for war were never addressed, the two different communities — the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska — continued to exist and function as separate entities pulling in opposite directions. The Serbs are still pulling for independence and the Bosnian-Croats for further integration.

Lastly, the Oslo Accords were a confidence-building process that would lead to Palestinians receiving incremental sovereignty over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in return for Israeli security.  To reach that agreement, the framers purposely avoided the issues at the conflict’s core: the claims by both parties to Jerusalem and the lands they live on, their rights to those lands, their relationship with each other, harms they inflicted on each other, and their refusal to view the other as equals.

In these cases, the groups compromised for peace. However, without addressing the underlying causes, their conflicts are unresolved.  In the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, each party now has the opportunity for introspection that can lead to common ground. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to divert attention away from Jewish housing expansion by offering to stop it in return for Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.  While treating such an important issue as a bartering chip may only lead to Palestinian rejection, it still creates an opportunity for the United States to help the parties engage with the reasons for conflict.

Since their relation to Jerusalem and the claim on its land is part of the central disagreements between Palestinians and Israelis, this is an opportunity to inspect each party’s recognition of the other’s claims and determine how much they acknowledge each other’s fears and aspirations in regards to the city.  In effect, don’t treat Jerusalem like a bartering chip or a negotiable agenda.  Treat it as it is: a holy city with connections to both people and between them.  Instead of building peace based on their differences over Jerusalem, build it based on their common respect and need for it.

Right now, the parties have so little trust in each other that seeking middle ground may be a waste of energy.  Neither side is able or willing to make concessions on their demands, fearing that the demands will weaken their overall position.  By protecting their demands, they hope they have found a way to meet their interests and needs.  Trust and peace cannot come as long as they see the other party as a direct threat to their interests.  Middle ground has its limits and the Middle East peace process may have hit it.  When groups treat core issues as matters for negotiations, they do nothing to create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.

Common ground should lead the way to peace — not middle ground.

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