There will be plenty of analysis on the substance of the upcoming talks at the White House between Netanyahu and Abbas. What is not being talked about is the actual process itself. A well-designed and executed mediation process will do much to help create the container necessary for the difficult conversations between the parties.
The plan announced in the press calls for Obama to meet separately with Netanyahu and Abbas on September 2, 2010 followed by a joint meeting mediated by Secretary of State Clinton on September 3, 2010. There is the possibility that King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Mubarak of Egypt, and former British prime minister Tony Blair will attend as well. If these three "observers" are present, their roles should be clearly defined and understood so as to prevent confusion during the talks.
The mediation team should be very careful not to rush to a discussion of solutions. These parties are not ready to discuss solutions. Seeking agreement on borders, settlements, etc., will simply lead to impasse and a breakdown of the process. Instead, a more subtle and nuanced approach is called for.
In the first day of the meetings, Obama should take the time with Netanyahu to reflect on the underlying symbolism of the Israeli settlement construction. Continued settlement construction is, of course, a major obstacle to cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians. Obama might ask some deeper questions of Netanyahu such as "Tell me about the feelings of the Israeli people around settlements?" "What is it about the expansion of settlements that is sacred to many people?" "How is the perception of Israel as the sacred land of the Jews reconciled with the Palestinian experience of being displaced from their ancestral homeland?" In other words, go to the core of the conflict before talking about any solutions. Taking the time to contemplate the larger symbolism underlying the conflict in the context of the current political and social situation in the region is critical foundational work. Experienced mediators know that the feelings and emotions driving any conflict have to be surfaced and examined before any serious problem-solving can be productive.
The same conversation should occur with Abbas. "Tell me about the feelings of the Palestinian people about Israeli settlement expansion?" "How is the feeling around the ancestral homeland of the Palestinians reconciled with the Israeli feelings of sacredness?" "How is the continued violence on both sides seen as protecting sacred values?" "Are those values being protected by violence?" By asking these questions and others that probe into the feelings of the leaders, Obama will have an opportunity to create an empathic connection with Netanyahu and Abbas. That connection will build trust and perhaps hope. Most importantly, it will give pause for reflection and perhaps start a small shift in perceptions about the problems.
The next day, Secretary Clinton will be mediating in a joint session. This is where a truly skilled mediator is needed. After introductions, Secretary Clinton should start asking questions that probe for the feelings of the Palestinian and Israeli people as represented by Netanyahu and Abbas. She might ask something to provoke some feelings such as, "If two representatives of the extremist Palestinians and the extremist Israelis were sitting here with you, what would you ask them?" "What do you think they would say?" "How would you respond to them as the leaders of your respective people?" Secretary Clinton might ask some of the same questions President Obama asked the day before, only directing them to the group instead of to an individual. "Each of you knows that the land is sacred. Tell us how you reconcile the injustices felt by your people with the injustices experienced by the other side?" She might turn to her observers, Abdullah, Mubarak, and Blair, to ask them about their feelings about what they have heard and experienced. The purpose is to uncover and explore the different symbolic meanings the parties have placed on the substantive issues of the talks. Reconciling those differences is where the peace work occurs. Again, rushing to solutions without exploring the underlying conflict drivers openly will lead to impasse.
Kenneth Cloke has called this type of provocative questioning "mediating dangerously." The mediator has to have more courage than the parties to help them confront their deepest feelings around the conflict. If Secretary Clinton can be this courageous in her role as mediator, the talks will progress. Otherwise, we may expect to see little progress and increased frustration at the end of the day on September 2nd.