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What to Do When Negotiations Are Premature: Learning From the 2013-2014 “Kerry Initiative” in Israel/Palestine

What to Do When Negotiations Are Premature: Learning From the 2013-2014 “Kerry Initiative” in Israel/Palestine

Photo credit: State Department

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Ramsbotham, O. & Schiff, A. (2018). When formal negotiations fail: Strategic negotiation, ripeness theory, and the Kerry Initiative. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 11(4), 321-340.

Talking Points

  • The Israeli/Palestinian peace process facilitated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-2014 failed for various reasons, including the following:
    • both parties had options they preferred over the U.S.-led negotiations and/or proposed solution,
    • both parties lacked sufficient domestic support for negotiations,
    • neither party believed the other was serious about negotiations or was ready to employ key elements of principled negotiation.
  • When conditions for a successful negotiation process do not yet exist, a “strategic negotiation” approach can be helpful in identifying obstacles and therefore also the conditions necessary for formal negotiations to begin.
  • The three levels of a strategic negotiation approach—1) collective strategic thinking, 2) strategic engagement, and 3) involvement of third parties—encourage greater awareness of the parties’ strategic alternatives so that parties can more fully consider and debate their implications and so that third parties can then use these implications to put pressure on the parties to come to agreement.


When negotiation processes fail, third parties may be at a loss for how to proceed. As was the case for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts in Israel/Palestine in 2013-2014, they may dial back their goals and still find that parties cannot even agree to a mere “document of principles” with reservations. The authors ask, first, why did the Kerry Initiative fail? And, second, what can be done in such cases? The authors propose what they call a “strategic negotiation” approach, which can address situations where the parties are not even prepared to take the prenegotiation steps necessary to bring them to the table in the first place—or to make their attempts successful once there.

To address the first question, the authors examine four negotiation theories to see what they tell us about why Kerry’s peace efforts failed. First, Zartman’s ripeness theory argues that parties will be ready to negotiate if they a) experience a “mutually hurting stalemate” (a situation where both are hurting from the conflict and neither sees a path to victory) and b) see a “way out” (through a negotiated settlement, for which they think the other party is also ready). Second, extending ripeness theory to explain why negotiations may succeed, Zartman’s push and pull model highlights two necessary conditions: a “mutually hurting stalemate” (again) and a “mutually enticing opportunity.” Whereas the former means sustaining parties’ perceptions of the conflict’s “ripeness” in order to keep them at the table, the latter means crafting an agreement formula that will meet parties’ “needs and interests better than the status quo.” Third, Pruitt’s central coalition theory suggests that parties will be more likely to begin negotiations and reach an agreement if there is a broad spectrum of political actors on each side constituting the “central coalition” in support of negotiations. Finally, Fisher and Ury’s principled negotiation theory identifies four elements for successful negotiation: 1) separating the people from the problem, 2) focusing on interests instead of positions, 3) inventing multiple options for mutual gain, and 4) using objective criteria to assess these options and to come to agreement.

With regards to ripeness theory and the push and pull model, the authors conclude that the Israelis and Palestinians did not perceive a mutually hurting stalemate, as both had options they preferred to the U.S.-led negotiation process (and proposed solution): Palestinians preferred a different process (applying pressure on Israel through international institutions), and Israel preferred a different outcome to the proposed “two-state solution” (the status quo). Moreover, neither party believed the other was serious about negotiation, so they didn’t see a “way out” through the process; and the process and/or outcome alternatives preferred by either party meant that no “mutually enticing opportunity” could be crafted to bring them to a successful settlement. With regards to central coalition theory, neither Abbas (of Palestine) nor Netanyahu (of Israel) enjoyed a broad “central coalition” in support of negotiations. Abbas was politically “weak” and “lacked legitimacy among the Palestinian public,” facing opposition to negotiations within his government and a split between his Fatah party and Hamas, while Netanyahu’s coalition government was vulnerable if he was perceived to go too far in his concessions to Palestine. As for principled negotiation theory, the conflict parties were not yet ready to separate the people from the problem, focus on interests instead of positions, brainstorm options for mutual gain, or judge these on the basis of objective criteria (which were themselves under dispute). In addition, the mediator (Kerry) also inadvertently hindered the peace process through his over-ambitious negotiation schedule, parties’ impressions of his favoritism, and his team’s failure to demonstrate comprehension of the conflict’s complexities.

Since the conditions for a successful negotiation did not yet exist, the authors suggest that a “strategic negotiation” approach would have been helpful to identify what was “block[ing] the way” and therefore how to establish the conditions necessary for formal negotiations to begin. Outlining the first of three “levels” of strategic negotiation, the authors note that this approach “starts where the conflicting parties are, not where third parties want them to be,” with collective strategic thinking within each of the parties. This level entails “open and inclusive” debate and strategizing among internal constituencies with regards to what each party wants and how it can best get there, with a key dimension being how each party weighs its “strategic alternatives.” The second level is strategic engagement “across and between the conflicting parties,” which can serve to build lines of communication between them and also to clarify new issues and/or possible solutions. The third level is the involvement of third parties, who, the authors argue, can never be completely neutral or disinterested since they necessarily have their own agendas, even if those simply entail the desire to influence the strategic calculations of the parties in favor of successful negotiations.

In the end, the authors argue, what the strategic negotiation approach contributes is a greater awareness of the various parties’ strategic alternatives so that parties can more fully consider and debate their implications—and so that third parties can use these to put pressure on the parties to come to agreement.

Contemporary Relevance

With the Israeli/Palestinian peace process currently stalled, the finding here—that there is an approach conflict parties and third parties can adopt to make progress even when negotiations themselves are out of reach—provides at least some hope. It is hope that is sorely needed: protests in Gaza since March 2018, demanding the Palestinian right of return and condemning the blockade of Gaza, have resulted in a heavy-handed Israeli response that has killed at least 200 Palestinians, while a Palestinian sniper from Gaza has killed one Israeli soldier and Hamas has fired rockets into Israel; the U.S. has unilaterally moved its embassy to Jerusalem, preempting the parties’ own negotiations over final-status issues; a new law in Israel solidifies the Jewish character of the state and therefore the second-class status of non-Jewish Israelis; and, more recently, Hamas has engaged in fatal attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. And these are only some of the most reported escalations of this intractable conflict. The focus of this research on the crucial role of internal deliberation (or “collective strategic thinking”) as a preliminary step to prepare parties for negotiation suggests the importance of efforts within both Israeli and Palestinian communities at this juncture to amplify dissenting voices—of which there are many—in order to clarify the alternative paths the parties could be taking, as well as to highlight the costs associated with the current path.

Practical Implications

Although third parties may be understandably single-minded about getting the parties to come together for negotiations, this research suggests that doing so too soon can be counterproductive—and that more energy should be devoted, when negotiations are premature, to fleshing out alternative scenarios both within and across parties. For third parties, the trick is to carefully note the range of options identified on each side, along with their various negative and positive implications, and use this information to their strategic advantage by putting pressure on parties in the direction of an outcome that will be mutually acceptable. Third parties can also clarify how the current situation hurts—and is costly for—both sides. Finally, third parties should do what they can to make a negotiated solution enticing for a broad range of constituents on each side, so that the negotiating team—when it emerges and embarks on the peace process—has substantial backing.

Continued Reading

Keywords: Palestine, Israel, negotiation, peace processes

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.

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