The Mathematics of Middle East Conflict and Peace

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an immensely complicated hundred-year-old conflict that today operates and is reinforced across a multitude of issues, time periods, stakeholders and lands.
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Israel's mired peace talks, expanding settlements and renewed violence have become all too familiar. Despite the rise and fall of many Jewish and Arab leaders, dramatic changes in official policies, swings in the political will of the citizenry, and perpetual waves of pressure from the international community, these conditions have remained the status quo. This pattern has developed into a state that conflict scholars label intractable and that mathematicians call an attractor: the Israel-Palestinian conflict has thus become an intractable attractor.

Experts estimate that about five percent of international conflicts become intractable: highly destructive, enduring and resistant to multiple good-faith attempts at resolution. These conflicts seem to develop a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their own ruin. And although uncommon, they last an average of 36 years and have accounted for 49% of international wars (including two world wars) since 1816, 76% of civil wars since 1946, and evoke disproportionate levels of expense, misery, hopelessness and instability.

A branch of applied mathematics called complexity science provides a basic platform for understanding how intractable conflicts assemble themselves into attractors; these are tightly-coupled systems that resist change. Think of how a person's heart rate stabilizes around a certain beat pattern, or how one's blood pressure seeks a particular level, or how bodyweight seems to have a specific set point. These are attractors. And even though they may change temporarily (we may lose seven pounds on a crash diet), odds are they will soon return to their attractor. The five percent of intractable social conflicts evidence the same rules: no matter what we do they always return.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an immensely complicated hundred-year-old conflict that today operates and is reinforced across a multitude of issues, time periods, stakeholders and lands. It has become what Stephen Cohen, founder of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development describes as "the crucible of multiple conflicts in the region and multiple grievances that feed upon one another and that produce reoccurring eruptions of violence." Unfortunately, every large-scale effort at peacemaking to date -- at Oslo, Wye, Camp David, Taba, Geneva, all twenty-six proposals and counting -- have been co-opted by the conflict and seem to have only contributed to peace fatigue. In fact, there is some evidence that such efforts only make matters worse with the five percent.

However, given that the broad parameters of a permanent two-state settlement are clear, for the most part, it seems that something more basic is contributing to the continued intractability of the conflict. Namely, the tightly-coupled nature of the conflict's many dimensions (psychological, political, communal, structural, religious, regional, and international), the accumulation of negativity and dissipation of positivity over decades, the disproportional influence of small groups of extremists, and the resulting closed, non-adaptive, self-organizing system. In other words, we are confronted with an intractable conflict attractor.

What does the Five Percent perspective recommend for the Israel-Palestinian conflict? Here are a few thoughts.

Capitalize on current regional instability. In studies by Paul Diehl and Gary Goetz of the approximately 850 enduring conflicts that occurred throughout the world between 1816 to 1992, over three-quarters of them were found to have ended within ten years of a major political shock (world wars, civil wars, significant changes in territory and power relations, regime change, independence movements, or transitions to democracy). Events such as those erupting in the Middle East region today promote optimal conditions for dramatic realignment of sociopolitical systems. However, the effects of such destabilization are often not immediately apparent and do not ensure radical change; it is therefore only a necessary but insufficient condition for peace.

Decouple the conflict. Most enduring conflicts require a period in which they de-link from other, more distant conflicts, before peace can emerge. The fate of Israel-Palestine would improve considerably were it to de-link from the many other regional and international conflicts with which it is associated. In the 1970s and 1980s, in fact, the Arab-Israeli conflict became less severe as Jordan chose not to take part in the 1973 war and Egypt made peace with Israel.

Work from the bottom up. Shifting focus from big-picture ideas to achievable, on-the-ground goals can loosen the conflict's stranglehold on the peace process and ignite it from the bottom up. During round-table negotiations, focus first on moving the practical aspects of the society forward (functional health care, agriculture, transportation, tourism, etc.). Working at this lower level, while temporarily circumventing the global issues of power, control and identity, can help to initiate an altogether new emergent dynamic.

Stop making peace. It may seem counterintuitive, but is probably best for some peacemakers to not work directly on increasing the peace. While it is critical that members of NGOs and community-based organizations do whatever possible to increase intercommunal positivity and decrease negativity and suffering, it may be best to do so in a manner divorced from the "peace process," so as to avoid the polarization that can result from falling prey to the politics of the attractor.

Identify and support indigenous repellers for violence. Communities around the world -- indeed, most especially the major religions present in the Israel-Palestine region -- have well-established taboos against committing particular forms of violence and aggression. To varying degrees, they all emphasize impulse control, tolerance, nonviolence, and concern for the welfare of others. These values, when extended to members of other groups, hold great potential for the prevention of violence and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

The five percent of intractable conflicts are different. They follow a unique set of rules and dynamics that make them particularly damaging and unresponsive to standard forms of diplomacy. Middle East peace may at last erupt when we learn to understand this.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD is on faculty at Teachers College and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.

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