Framing the Issue, Naming the Struggle


Mediators are assumed to be nonbiased and neutral. Perhaps this explains why a few people  asked me over the years why my articles seem to show a “slant” in favour of the Palestinian people. How could I, as a mediator, show such bias? This isn’t surprising to me, as the news has for so long been one-sided toward Israel that any recognition/raising of Palestinian interests or viewpoints risks being labeled anti-Semitic, let alone biased. This keeps criticism of Israeli policies to a minimum.

When I took training to become a mediator in 1985, it dawned on me fairly early that we mediators of course are not always neutral, and as humans, we naturally have biases. Concern about neutrality & bias makes sense. Bias renders a mediator unlikely to be equally fair to all involved. In self-assessing my appropriateness to act as mediator, I used to ask myself:

am I biased in this matter?  And if so, am I capable of remaining objective and fair in my dealings with everyone involved despite that bias? If not, it was my ethical duty to step aside. (Even a perception of bias, such as having met one of the parties and not the other, needs to be raised and the matter perhaps referred to another mediator. This is for the parties to decide.) American leaders who called themselves “mediators” during past Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” exemplify this problem; they were neither non-biased nor neutral. Further, American mediators had a conflict of interest, which is always reason to disqualify oneself as mediator.

For me, another aspect of serving all disputants is the mediator task of stating the issues at stake in a way that fairly names the struggle the parties are grappling with. Trying to do this in an honest and concise way is a humbling task! Naming what is at the heart of a dispute with clarity and kindness allows parties feel recognized, tensions ease, and they are more able to find their way forward.  Naming the struggle may not be easy to hear; it disrupts disputants’ narrative of themselves as victims of the other. If the attempt is off base, the parties say so, and a process of clarification, disclosure of key interests, and working together to better characterize the struggle ensues. To me, this is a very helpful part of the process.

With Israel-Palestine, one might name the struggle as: “How do these 2 peoples find a way to end the violence, ensure their own security, and negotiate a two-state solution?”  One dilemma this statement presents is its built-in solution, one that the disputants themselves may not choose;  (indeed, one that is now impossible due to 700,000+ Israeli settlers having moved to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.)  It also fails to recognize the hugely disproportionate power held by Israelis over Palestinians. It ignores the complex history between these conflicted peoples – the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the 1948 UN Partition Plan, the 1948 & ongoing Nakba (“Catastrophe” in Arabic), the 1967 War, 2008’s “Operation Cast Lead”, etc. It ignores the very real oppression occurring now, where all Palestinianswhether forgotten inside Israel, being attacked by settlers in the West Bank, or locked inside the 6 x 26 mile “open-air prison” that is Gaza, – are denied basic rights and equality under the law. It ignores the denial of access to water, the vast Separation Wall, the hundreds of checkpoints, the home and school demolitions, the land, sea and air blockade of Gaza, the Israeli-only road system through the West Bank, and the multitude of other indignities Palestinians endure daily.

From a mediator lens, when the power differential is so vast, the struggle is not amenable to a mediated/negotiated solution.  The more appropriate frame is that of “victim-offender”, where harms have been caused which need to be acknowledged, responsibility/accountability needs to be taken, and a plan put into place to repair and restore relationship.

In the Restorative Justice paradigm which I believe applies with Israel-Palestine, Israel is unlikely to take responsibility for its part in causing harm until held accountable by the community of nations. This would mean seriously pressuring Israel to end its long occupation of Palestinian territory and the siege of Gaza. Only then, and with much support, clarity and compassion, can those involved begin to restore & repair relationship and begin to craft a way forward. This is a big, but achievable task. But what is the alternative? And it absolutely requires the collective engagement of the international community!

I wrote this article (with some updating) in 2013, in a series of articles called “Hard Conversations – Israel-Palestine”. It’s discouraging to note that in 10 years, the situation has only deteriorated, peace and justice are ever further from the horizon, and the violence has never been more brutal.  To offer some context for the war on Palestinians right now, I’ll be revisiting some of them in weeks to come.  


1 Gorenberg, Gershom, The Accidental Empire, Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, Henry Holt Books, New York: 2006.

2 Flapan, Simha, The Birth of Israel, Myths and Realities, Pantheon Books, New York:1987.

3 Pappe, Ilan, The Forgotten Palestinians, A History of the Palestinians in Israel, Yale University Press, New Haven: 2011.

4 Gorenberg, Gershom, The Unmaking of Israel, HarperCollins, New York:2011.

5 Sacco, Joe, Notes from Gaza, Henry Holt and Company, New York:2009, & Pearlman,Wendy, Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York: 2003.