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Mediation: What Does Success Depend Upon?

Is success in mediation dependent upon a particular combination of circumstance and personality?
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}



[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he diplomatic tool of mediation boasts a wide variety of definitions within the International Relations literature.[1] However, if one was to settle upon a definitive description then it may be Berridge’s classification of mediation as ‘the active search for a negotiated settlement to an international or intrastate conflict by an impartial third party.’[2]Yet, how does one define success in mediation amongst the many complexities that pepper negotiations between two embittered rivals? Despite the fact that both parties may have differing perceptions on what success would constitute, successful mediation has generally been regarded as either a de-escalation in the means of struggle between the negotiating parties, the negotiations themselves moving forward or the creation of a settlement that leads towards a positive resolution of the parties’ differences; in short, a positive contribution towards the relationship of the two participants. If this is what success in mediation is to be defined as, this begs a multitude of questions: what does ‘success’ depend upon? Is it the personality of the mediator? Is it the context of the situation and the issue at hand? Or else, is it a combination of both the mediator and the circumstance which leads to a successful mediation attempt?

This article will demonstrate how both circumstance and personality are vital to the success of mediation and how a combination of these factors has worked in practice. It will argue that success in mediation does indeed depend upon a multitude of factors, specifically the context of a dispute and the timing of third party mediation, in combination with a mediator of specific attributes who is able to exploit this ‘ripe’ opportunity and maximise the potential for progress in a dispute between two parties. The first section will analyse the contextual factors which determine success in mediation such as pre-negotiations, the timing of a mediation attempt and the issue to be resolved; essentially the process of getting to the negotiating table. The second section will explore the importance of the mediator once the parties have been brought to the table and the particular attributes that an intermediary requires if a mediation attempt is to be successful. The third section will argue that it is indeed the right combination of contextual issues and virtues held by a mediator that lay the foundations for success during the mediation process; this will be demonstrated by the case study of Camp David. The final section will conclude and summarise the key points that have been argued in this article.

Getting to the Table

The events that precede a mediation attempt are almost, if not equally, as important as the negotiations themselves if a third party’s efforts are to breed fruitful progress; this has been widely acknowledged in the literature on mediation.[3] The level of intractability in a disputed issue largely determines whether a mediation attempt will be successful or doomed to failure. However, there is a clear discrepancy in the literature with some analysts asserting that a dispute of high intensity will present the mediator with a greater challenge for progress.[4] Whereas, others have claimed that greater violence in a dispute will ultimately lead to a heightened desire for third party intervention.[5] While it is indeed an astute point that the parties may request mediation in the face of increased violence, it is clear that the more important the issue is to the two parties, the less manoeuvrability a mediator will have in the long term. For example, if an issue involves the vital national security interests of the parties in question, such as the Falklands sovereignty dispute between Britain and Argentina, then it is unlikely that a mediator will be able to achieve a de-escalation in the conflict.[6] It can therefore be deduced that the less important the issue at stake is, combined with a shared motivation for settlement, the outcome is more likely to be positive. Thus, before the parties even reach the negotiating table, the issue at hand must be one which the mediator deems to have sufficient room for negotiation and the potential for progress if his efforts are to be successful.

In addition to dealing with an issue where progress is possible, the timing of third party intervention is crucial if mediation is to be successful. The main feature of this argument is ‘ripeness theory’ which is the notion of a dispute being propitious for third party intervention.[7] This idea has gained much attention in the literature and academics have endeavoured to identify the instance whereby mediation is likely to be most successful.[8] It is clear that deciding upon the right point of entry into a dispute is crucial to having the highest possibility of success in mediation and it has even been proposed that ‘knowing when to use mediation may be more important than how often it is used.’[9] The theory of a ‘ripe’ opportunity for mediation is based around the idea of antagonists reaching a ‘Mutually Hurting Stalemate’ whereby the continuation of conflict will only be to their detriment; essentially, that there is no route to victory in sight and the parties reach a deadlock where they then become open to third party intervention.[10] Henry Kissinger has supported this view, asserting that ‘stalemate is the most propitious condition for settlement.’[11]As Zartman accurately posits, ‘ripeness’ has been central to numerous successful mediations such as El Salvador in 1988 and Mozambique in 1992 whilst a lack of ‘ripeness’ has resulted in failed mediations between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1980s and perpetually within Sudan. This further emphasises the importance of timing in mediation.[12]

If third party intervention is timed incorrectly, when the situation is ‘unripe’, there is the potential for counter-productive consequences. The antagonists involved in the dispute may take pre-emptive action against each other, which would ultimately lead to the breakdown of negotiations and render futile any progress made. For instance, in 1969 Kissinger decided against a comprehensive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East as he was of the belief that the situation was not ripe and that its failure could ultimately result in conflict.[13] Therefore, picking the right moment for mediation is essential and the period before any negotiation begins is arguably the most vital.

In this light, the pre-negotiation process gains importance as a factor in mediation success.[14] Intermediaries can boost the ripeness of a dispute through gestures and increased interaction with the disputants. Direct acts such as military assistance, alliance commitments and security pledges can all be utilised to increase the willingness of the parties in dealing with each other at the negotiating table and ultimately further a mediator’s room for manoeuvre when the negotiations begin.[15] Other important details such as the facilitation of a neutral venue for the negotiations will also benefit the mediation process.[16] Combining these factors, it is evident that the context of the issue in dispute, the timing of third party intervention and bringing the parties to the table through pre-negotiations are all significant precursors to the mediation process that have a substantial impact upon its outcome.

 The Mediator’s Role

‘The task of the mediator is not an easy one. The sea that he sails is only roughly charted and its changing contours are not clearly discernible. He has no sciences of navigation, no fund inherited from the experience of others. He is a solitary artist recognising at most a few guiding stars and depending on his personal powers of divination’.[17]

        Once the antagonists have been brought to the negotiating table, the mediator becomes of crucial importance to the outcome of the mediation.[18] What qualities does a mediator require if success in mediation is to become a possibility? The literature offers a diverse range of characteristics that a successful mediator must entail.[19] Mediation in conflict resolution is executed by a variety of actors such as heads of state, government representatives, contact groups, non-governmental, regional and international organisations such as the UN, and once the correct conditions for mediation are present, it requires a negotiator of specific capabilities to capitalise upon a ‘ripe’ dispute and realise success at the table.[20] First and foremost, a mediator should not enter into negotiations under the pretence that the outcome will be final and total; a mediator must be realistic and be content with any progress that is made in a dispute. Secondly, a mediator must have diplomatic skills of a high order to deal with two important protagonists and must be well versed in the art of personal diplomacy if a compromise is to be realised. Other mediator traits that have been classed as important in the literature are qualities such as credibility, leadership, patience, stamina and a sense of humour.[21]

Nevertheless, whether the mediator is a superpower such as the US, a neutral mediator such as Switzerland or a contact group such as the one utilised in Bosnia, the essential traits that a mediator must hold for there to be an increased probability of success are: the ability to build trust, impartiality on the issue on the table and leverage.[22] A mediator must be able to gain the trust of the antagonists and to also build a degree of trust between them, persuading the parties that the other is committed to the negotiations.[23] Trust must be present between all parties at the table if any positive development is to occur; when trust is present, the parties will be more amenable to a settlement and more comfortable in the company of a mediator. An example of such a mediator building a working trust with the disputing parties is Kissinger’s mediation between Israel and Egypt after the 1973 war. Kissinger held the necessary legitimacy and leverage as he held the position of US Secretary of State, therefore the two parties trusted his role in the negotiations and he was able to aid Israel and Egypt’s suspicions of each other by relaying messages to both parties, specifically guaranteeing to the Israelis that the Egyptians were willing to make peace.[24] If trust is absent from a mediation then the likelihood that the negotiations will result in failure is bound to increase.

The issue of trust is strongly linked to impartiality in mediation, yet the importance of the mediator’s neutrality in regard to successful mediation has recently been brought into question in the literature.[25] How impartial can a mediator truly be? Each negotiator brings with them a different culture, set of interests and approach to the mediation process.[26] Touval proffers that ‘mediators, like brokers, are in it for profit’ but as long as the mediator has a vested interest in settling a dispute, they should remain impartial on the issue at hand if progress is to be made.[27] If an antagonist perceives the mediator to be partial in the dispute then the mediation will be doomed to failure. Thus, through the use of gestures, the mediator has to prove to the parties that he is impartial on the issue at hand in order to win their confidence. There have been various cases where a mediator has been partial to one antagonist but allayed their bias in the interest of a settlement; for instance, the US has strong ties with Israel yet Kissinger gained Sadat’s trust and remained objective throughout the Israel-Egypt mediation.[28]

The final requirement of a mediator if it is to be effective at the negotiating table is leverage. Whilst neutral mediators can indeed be effective, a negotiator with power has a greater chance of bringing substantial progress to a dispute.[29] A mediator with superior resources is able to cajole the parties and influence the negotiations to greater effect than a negotiator of a lesser stature would; this was the case at Camp David which the next section will focus on more closely.[30] Therefore, in combination with a ‘ripe’ dispute, success in mediation depends upon trust between the parties around the table, a mediator’s neutrality on the disputed issue and the leverage that a mediator bears upon the antagonists.

 The Case of Camp David

US mediation between Egypt and Israel at Camp David is a poignant example of how the right combination of circumstance and personality enhances the prospect of success in mediation. In 1978, the US President, Jimmy Carter, invited both Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President, to his country retreat to participate in what would be thirteen days of secret negotiations. The negotiations resulted in the signing of the Camp David Accords and directly led to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979. Why was Carter’s mediation so successful? Firstly, the issue was ‘ripe’ for third party mediation; Sadat delivered a peaceful gesture by being the first Arab leader to recognise the state of Israel by stepping foot on Israeli land and giving a speech in Jerusalem. This act demonstrated to Jimmy Carter that peace was possible and this set the tone for the Camp David negotiations. Furthermore, the fact that the negotiations were strictly limited to bringing progress to Egypt-Israeli relations rather than finding a solution to the wider problems of the Middle East meant that the chances of success were increased.[31]

In addition to the context of the dispute, the stature of the US as a superpower aided the mediation. Due to the resources that Jimmy Carter had at his disposal he was in a position to influence the outcome of the negotiations; he had something to offer and something to take away, in other words ‘carrots and sticks’, which gave him substantial leverage in the dispute. Carter was liberal to his fingertips and was cautious of ‘buying peace’ in the discussions but in the end he did so. As Israel was to surrender the Sinai, Carter compensated them with $3 billion worth of loans to build new airfields in the Negev.[32]  Similarly, Egypt was the chief beneficiary of US development assistance by 1981-2.[33] Carter was able to use the ‘carrots’ at his disposal to cajole and persuade the parties into a settlement by the close of the thirteen days of negotiations. The US’s standing as a superpower meant that Israel and Egypt would find it easier to submit to US suggestions rather than from each other; it is evident that ‘American leadership was certainly a necessary condition for the success of the negotiations’.[34] This example of superpower mediation substantiates the claim that a mediator with more resources at his disposal is more effective in the mediation process and, as a result, increases the probability of success in the negotiations.[35]

Jimmy Carter himself was crucial to the success of the mediation at Camp David. The US President was held in high regard by the parties and he displayed leadership in his unique role as both a friend and a mediator to Sadat and Begin. When the two called a halt to negotiations and retreated to their respective cabins, Carter shuffled from one cabin to the other utilising charisma, skill and persuasion in order to keep the leaders at Camp David and to continue the negotiations. Not only was Carter willing to take risks in the negotiations, he had the ability to instil confidence in the antagonists to point where they also took risks in the pursuit of peace. Without the diligence and tact of Carter in this mediation, the negotiations would have stalled and resulted in failure. Therefore, the case of Camp David clearly demonstrates that success in mediation does indeed depend on a combination of factors: the dispute on the table should be negotiable, the mediator should have leverage at his disposal in order to influence the negotiations and also hold exceptional personal qualities in order to maximise the potential for progress in a dispute such as Carter exhibited at Camp David.


It is realistic to conclude that success in mediation does indeed depend upon a particular combination of circumstance and personality. The arguments put across in this article to support this claim are numerous. For progress to be made in the negotiations between two disputants, it is critical that the dispute is ‘ripe’ for third party intervention and that the issue at hand allows the mediator room for manoeuvre. When the two parties have been brought to the negotiating table, the mediator must have the ability to build trust between the opposing parties, to remain impartial on the disputed issue and to utilise their leverage effectively to achieve a more favourable outcome. As the case of Camp David demonstrates, the combination of the correct issue and a mediator of high power and skill provided the ideal foundation for a successful mediation.

To summarise, it is clear that without the right context of a dispute and a mediator of certain qualities, mediation is likely to be less successful or even result in failure. Therefore, under ‘ripe’ circumstances, a mediator that is able to effectively use the resources and personal qualities at his disposal will only serve to benefit a mediation attempt.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Sharp (2009), Bercovitch (2006) and Kydd (2006) among others.

[2] Berridge and James (2003), p. 171.

[3] Haass (1988), Bercovitch (2006).

[4] Frei (1976); Bercovitch (1991).

[5] Young (1967); Beardsley (2005).

[6] Randle (1973), p. 49.

[7] Touval and Zartman (1985), pp. 258-60; Zartman (1989); Haass (1988).

[8] Kleiboer (1994); Zartman (1985), (2001);  Haass (1988).

[9] Stein and Lewis (1996); Bercovitch (1997), p. 145.

[10] Zartman (1985), (1989); Touval and Zartman (1985).

[11] Kissinger, New York Times, October 12 1974.

[12] Zartman (2001), p. 11.

[13] Kissinger (1979), p. 375.

[14] Watkins and Lundberg (1998).

[15] Haass (1988), p. 247.

[16] Berridge (2004), p. 196.

[17] Meyer (1960).

[18] It should be noted here that the parties come to the table voluntarily and decide who mediates.

[19] Kleiboer (1996); Wehr (1997); Bercovitch and Schneider (2000).

[20] Mediation is enshrined in the UN Charter (Chapter 6); Bercovitch (2007), p. 299.

[21] Zartman and Touval (1985); Bercovitch (1984); Bercovitch and Schneider (2000), p. 148.

[22] Böhmelt (2011); Gross-Stein (1989).

[23] Bercovitch and Schneider (2000); Poitras (2009).

[24] Kissinger (1982), p. 964.

[25] Bercovitch (1991); Wehr & Lederach (1991).

[26] See Cohen (1997).

[27] Touval (1982), p. 321.

[28] This was also the case at Camp David and in Angola (Berridge 1989).

[29] For example, the Oslo Talks. See Pruitt (1997).

[30] Touval and Zartman (1985).

[31] Haass (1988), p. 249.

[32] Quandt (1986), p. 241.

[33] Berridge (1997), Table 7.2.

[34] Quandt (1986), pp. 321, 331.

[35] Where leverage has been absent in an intractable conflict, mediators have usually failed. For example, the UN’s mediation attempt in Angola in 1992-3.


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American Aid To Israel Is A Good Thing

If you want a peace process, you want American aid to Israel.



[dropcap]D[/dropcap]aniel Vanello’s piece on the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East threw up a point worthy of further discussion: why, given Netanyahu’s poor track record of seeking a settlement with the Palestinians, does the US continue to provide Israel with such copious quantities of military aid?

For Israel is undoubtedly the foremost military power in the region. She possesses the latest military technology – courtesy of our cousins across the pond – weapons that the rest of the region would do far more than kill to get their hands on. Her secret service, Mossad, an organisation world-renowned for its ruthlessness and efficacy, is employed regularly to remove threats to Israeli security on an ‘under the radar’ basis, thus negating the need to resort to more conventional methods of debilitating enemies. And of course, should the worst come to the worst, the Jewish-majority state is the only Middle Eastern country to possess nuclear weapons, an option that has been considered in the past – 1973 Yom Kippur War. Surely therefore, continued American military aid to Israel is not only unnecessary – she is more than capable of defending herself – but, given the current economic climate and popular world opinion being racked up against the ‘only democratic state in the Middle East’, concurrently politically inadvisable?

Ron Paul, the septuagenarian libertarian currently running for the Republican presidential nomination, has had his remarks on the matter turned into something of a political hailstorm. His opinion follows that of above: firstly, that US aid to Israel is illogical given the tremors rocking the American economy, and secondly, that Israel no longer needs the hardware that America is able to provide – Israel would profit far greater from intelligence sharing and a curtailment of arms sales to neighbouring states. So why exactly does this father/spoilt-daughter relationship continue?

The $3 billion worth of military aid provided annually to the Jewish-majority state was brought about following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Our starting point, however, lies with the 6 Day War of 1967. The war (annihilation may be a more accurate description) saw Israel wrest control of the Sinai peninsula from Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s troops, proceeding to take up positions just east of the Suez Canal. Nasser thankfully/unfortunately (delete as appropriate) died in 1970 and was replaced by Anwar Sadat, an unassuming man that most – initially – had little time for. He was regarded as a toothless tiger: the military leadership were considered to be the main movers in the Egyptian establishment. However Sadat proved to be quite the strategist. Within two years of assuming power he had attempted to bring about some form of settlement with Israel, his objective being to regain control of the Sinai. Golda Meir (the feisty then Prime Minister of Israel) refused to partake in diplomacy with the Egyptian, her supposition being that no Arab leader could or should be trusted. Having had his overtures rejected, Sadat, along with his Syrian allies, invaded Israel in order to bring Meir to the negotiating table (the esteemed Ahron Bregman argues that Sadat had been encouraged by Henry Kissinger, the Machiavellian US National Security Advisor of the time, to initiate the war).

Whilst the 1973 war is quite possibly the most exciting and enthralling (and bloodiest) of all the Arab-Israeli sparring contests, I should probably get back on topic. Thus, to summarise ’73 in one sentence: initial Arab successes were countered by Israel, and following the implementation of a ceasefire the positions that had been initially held by both sides at the Suez Canal were retaken. The ’73 war was an Arab political victory and did much to shake the Israeli military command – they had been taken completely unaware. This provided the foundations for an initial peace settlement, for the Disengagement Treaties of 1974 were the start of the peace process, not the Camp David Accords of 1978 as is often asserted. The Disengagement Treaties mark the point at which American military aid to Israel was engaged. Should Israel arrive at a settlement with Egypt, and thus return control of the Sinai, she would be afforded the following:

1. $3 billion per annum of military aid;
2. an affirmation that no US peace plan would be put forth to international opinion without prior Israeli approval;
3. a promise that the United States would protect the Jewish-majority state against the USSR (having been threatened in the 1967 war), and;
4. a commitment that the US would ensure that the military aid supplied would maintain Israeli military superiority in the region.

Needless to say the deal was accepted and thus the peace process was born. 1974 marked the point at which America changed her tack when dealing with Israel: instead of trying to pressure the country into doing something she would rather not do, the US would shower her with gifts.

So, to conclude, next time you read about how stupid it is that America gives Israel so much money when it appears that Israel is doing nothing to warrant receiving such generous donations, remember that without such American overtures the Middle East would most probably be a far more unstable region that it is today. Of course, I might be completely wrong, maybe the peace process is a bad thing?