Robert Mnookin

Expert warns Israel has a tough task ‘Bargaining with the Devil’

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Expert warns Israel has a tough task ‘Bargaining with the Devil’

Robert Mnookin

CAMBRIDGE – Harvard Law School professor Robert Mnookin’s expertise in conflict resolution includes authoring a 2010 book titled “Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight.” In a virtual talk called “Negotiating with Hamas” on the first night of Hanukkah, Mnookin addressed the current conflict following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The talk was a Harvard Hillel program that drew around 500 viewers. It involved a conversation between Mnookin and Rabbi Dani Passow, who is the senior director of alumni and public programs at Harvard Hillel, although neither spoke as a representative of Hillel.

“What struck me in conflicts is how often one side demonizes the other, or both sides demonize the other,” Mnookin told the Journal. “A question in these most intense kinds of conflicts is, should you negotiate or should you just simply fight it out?”

Israel has pursued both avenues since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks, which killed around 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and with over 240 others taken hostage. In the subsequent ongoing Israeli campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, over 18,700 Palestinians have died, the majority being civilians. Over a weeklong truce last month, Hamas returned more than 100 hostages to Israel in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

“This conflict is just heartbreaking,” Mnookin said. “It’s tragic. On the one hand, how can one not be horrified by what Hamas has done, and what it claims its aspirations are in the future? On the other hand, watching these images of women and children dying in Gaza … it’s extremely painful and also tragic.”

He described Hamas as “an enemy of Israel,” whose “stated objective has been to eliminate the State of Israel, the Jewish state. There have been some statements in more recent years that their ultimate goal is simply the end of occupation, but there are many in Hamas that, I think, have that broader goal.” Regardless, he said, “They have engaged in acts that can only be characterized as evil.”

Over a decade ago, Mnookin addressed the issue of negotiating with a controversial adversary in “Bargaining with the Devil.” He has gone on to write books about the late former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (as a coauthor) and about being Jewish in America today. Yet as the virtual talk reflected, “Bargaining with the Devil” has gained new interest in the aftermath of Oct. 7.

The book features the character of Mr. Spock, whom the author describes as unemotional and rational. It also lists traps that may hamper such rationality among negotiators. Some are so-called positive traps – for example, having an optimistic view of people – yet it is far more common during negotiations with hated adversaries to encounter negative traps, according to the book. These include demonization, dehumanization, and seeing talks as a zero-sum game – if one side wins, the other loses.

“Particularly if you view [it as] dealing with an adversary who’s evil – this conflict certainly involves both sides believing that about the other – there’s a lot of what I call mental traps that can get in the way of rational thinking,” Mnookin said in the virtual talk.

He remembers participating in an initiative to foster dialogue during a previous round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Almost two decades ago, he went to Israel to hold talks through the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, which he heads. These sessions aimed to assuage what he describes as an internal conflict among Israelis over the issue of a two-state solution. He met with prominent voices across the political spectrum, including a founder of the country’s Peace Now movement on the left, and leaders of the pro-settler Yesha Council on the right, along with high-ranking national security officials.

Both in the virtual talk and in speaking with the Journal, Mnookin discussed what he sees as Israel’s aims in its current conflict: rescuing the hostages, eliminating Hamas, and demilitarizing Gaza.

“There’s a tension between these goals,” he said in the virtual talk, “because the war obviously puts the hostages at risk, both directly and indirectly. I suspect the Israelis understand that as long as the war continues, Hamas will not voluntarily negotiate a release of all the hostages [as keeping them] provides [Hamas] with leverage.”

Mnookin noted to the Journal that negotiations between Israel and Hamas during this conflict were not direct talks but mediated by third parties, including the United States and Qatar.

“What it amounts to is a prisoner swap of sorts,” he said, “which Israel has engaged in with Hamas in the past. It’s a form of negotiation. At least some hostages were released because of that.” However, he added, “I don’t think the Israelis have any illusions of there being some easy way to rescue all of them.”

Negotiations have been broken off for several weeks, and the war remains ongoing as of press time. Yet to Mnookin, the topic of “Bargaining with the Devil” remains as relevant as ever.

“Should you bargain with the devil?” he asked. “My answer is, not always, but more often than you feel like it.

“You’ll never feel like bargaining with the devil, for reasons I describe, but more importantly, when you view someone as an evil adversary, it’s much harder to think things carefully – opportunities and risks, advantages and disadvantages, the tendency to fall into various traps. It may lead you to exaggerate risks and minimize possible benefits.” Θ

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