Thursday, December 7, 2023

Negotiating Palestine and Ukraine needs a Rawlsian “Veil of Ignorance”

By Dev Chandrasekhar

It’s now exactly a month since 7 October. Israel has been unleashing hell and fire non-stop on Gaza in revenge for Hamas’s unprecedented rocket attacks on that day. Yet, even as Gaza’s death toll soars every day to the world’s consternation, Israeli casualties too are mounting as are the worries within a clearly rattled Israeli war machine—it is not used to protracted conflict, and its army of mostly reservists appears to have little appetite for face-to-face engagements with hardened militia such as the Hezbelloh or even the Hamas fighters who wait for them amid Gaza’s ruins.

A sane compromise appears almost impossible although all parties understand the no-win prospects for those involved. This article argues why this is so; and a plausible way forward to break this gridlock.

In the grand theater of global conflicts, the pursuit of peace between the mismatched often seems a Sisyphean task. The bitter realities of Israel-Palestine and Russia-Ukraine are stark reminders of the overt hopelessness of achieving genuine reconciliation when one party to the conflict has the size, money, weapons, power, and influence to “negotiate” from a “position of strength”.

The Palestinians have legitimate grievances related to, among others, displacement and loss of land, occupation, Israeli settlements, their decades-long brutalization, and the right of return to their ancestral homes. Israelis voice a profound fear of their security, the recognition of their existential right to a Jewish state in the Promised Land and, indeed, as a people.

Yet, it’s clear to even the casual observer that Israel calls the shots in its engagement with the Palestinians. Similar is the case with Russia-Ukraine. In both cases, should any “negotiations” happen, the most probable outcome will leave the smaller, weaker entity battered, humiliated, with less than what it had before–and certainly thirsting for the next  opportunity to exact revenge or vent frustration.


The Illusion of “Peace” Between Unequals

The history of international conflicts is rife with attempts at brokered or direct talks between parties with vast power disparities. However, peace agreements born out of such imbalances are bound to wither under the weight of unresolved grievances and perceived injustices.

Negotiating from a “position of strength” might yield temporary concessions or ceasefires, but it does not address the fundamental issues at the heart of the conflict. Genuine reconciliation requires a dialogue where both parties feel heard, valued, and respected. Negotiating from a position of strength almost always leads to agreements dictated by the powerful, leaving the grievances of the marginalized party unaddressed. This unequal negotiation process risks perpetuating the cycle of conflict, sowing the seeds for future hostilities. A peace perceived as unequal is inherently unstable, resembling a fragile bridge over troubled waters, liable to collapse at the slightest disturbance.


Ensuring fair negotiation requires third parties behind the “Veil of Ignorance”

However, amidst this apparent hopelessness, a novel approach emerges—a glimmer of possibility in the form of credible third-party mediators who can be trusted to steer negotiations behind a “Veil of Ignorance”, a philosophical construct put forth by John Rawls in his influential work “A Theory of Justice” (1971). The idea behind the Veil of Ignorance is to encourage people to think about justice from a position of impartiality and fairness, free from personal biases that arise from their own identities, circumstances, or advantages in life. When applied to conflicts like Israel-Palestine and Russia-Ukraine, this philosophy compels mediators to construct agreements using a thought process that both parties perceive as just and unbiased–the resulting agreement becomes a product of genuine collaboration.

Since it would be a stretch to hope for such nuances from direct or conflicted parties, “non-partisan” figures who understand and have publicly articulated balanced views on global issues for decades—the likes of Gabor Maté, Cornel West, and Yanis Varoufakis, to name a few—might be trusted to wear this Veil of Ignorance if a brokered peace must be given a chance. Their involvement holds the promise of negotiating agreements that are not only impartial, equal, and fair but also deeply rooted in the concerns and aspirations of both parties, free from the chains of prejudice.

Credible third-party mediators—individuals or institutions respected for their wisdom, empathy, and impartiality–standing outside the immediate sphere of these conflicts, unburdened by historical biases, inject a crucial element into any negotiation: an objective perspective. Their credibility has a higher probability of ensuring that the parties involved are more likely to perceive the mediation process as just and fair, creating an atmosphere ripe for meaningful dialogue and cooperation, leading to agreements that address the concerns and aspirations of both parties.

In the realm of international conflicts, hope for lasting peace lies in the hands of those unafraid to challenge conventional paradigms. A negotiated agreement that truly works for both parties must not only acknowledge historical grievances but also dismantle the barriers of prejudice and inequality.

The involvement of credible, unconflicted third-party mediators, employing the principles of the Veil of Ignorance, offers a unique opportunity–the chance to transcend the limitations of unequal power dynamics, fostering a peace deeply rooted in impartiality, equality, and fairness. In this space of understanding, the dream of a harmonious world becomes not a fool’s hope, but a tangible possibility.

(Dev Chandrasekhar advises corporates on the “Big Picture”. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author.)

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