Does the Concept of Ripeness Apply to the Israel/Hamas War?


Ripeness Graphic

Newsletter 194— January 12, 2024


From the Directors Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

In our earlier discussions about the Israeli/Hamas war, there was virtually universal agreement that Israel, as it prosecutes its war against Hamas, should only act when absolutely necessary and, when it does act, do everything possible to protect Gaza's civilian population. Today we received a link to a short, must-watch video prepared by the Israeli Defense forces explaining how they are trying to respond to these concerns. If we want Israel to protect the Palestinian people, we ought to listen when they explain how they are trying to do that and, to the degree that they are succeeding, give them credit for their efforts.


In this newsletter, we want to think more carefully about the degree to which one of the core concepts of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields, Bill Zartman's theory of ripeness, applies to the ongoing Israel / Hamas war and other similarly intractable conflicts.

Several readers have written to challenge many of our views on the Israel/Hamas war,  arguing that we are violating many of the tenants we have long advocated in Beyond Intractability, particularly our admonitions against us-them framing, and enemy imaging, and the advantages of using integrative power rather than coercive power to solve problems.  We can see how readers would feel this way — indeed, we have repeatedly asked ourselves the same question.  We also exchanged essays with Jack Williams, a colleague who is President of the Institute for Global Negotiation. Jack asked in his two letters to us, why we continue to focus on the horrors of October 7, and do not focus nearly as much on the horrors of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians in Gaza or how to end this tragedy. (This exchanged appeared in Newsletters 185 and 186.)

In our response to Jack, we replied that we didn't think that most of the BI materials applied to the Israel/Hamas situation. Jack countered with the legitimate question, why not:  "In what way do you feel the BI resources do not pertain to such a scenario? So many intractable conflicts are with those who see each other as evil and commit horrific crimes against one another including glorifying in torture and killing." 

We answered at the time that:

The BI materials that lay out the problem of intractability are, indeed, very relevant.  If there ever was an intractable conflict, this is certainly it!  I was thinking about the "solution" side of BI.  Most of BI's "solutions" materials assume that the parties involved are mostly good-faith actors who are willing to engage meaningfully in dialogue, in negotiations, mediations, problem solving workshops, etc. They relate to situations where the conflict is "ripe" for negotiation. They are much less applicable when one (or both sides, for that matter) think that they can win through military means (or believe that the other side will never negotiate in good faith).  That's the situation we have here right now.

The Palestinians seem convinced, as they have been for a long time, that they can win if they just make life on Israelis miserable enough for a long enough period of time. And when they are supported and celebrated for doing just that, that must make them even more convinced that this is a winning approach. They have proven time and again that they are willing to accept substantial civilian casualties.  People who die are martyrs for the cause, and from what I read, many think that is the highest possible calling one can have in life.  And yes, some, such as Netanyahu and his far-right wing allies, also seem to think that a military response and quite possibly an annexation of the West Bank, if not Gaza, is a way to ultimately prevail in this struggle. 

That makes this situation extremely unripe, which makes most of BI's solutions materials irrelevant until both sides come to the conclusion that they want to negotiate an end to this dispute (using the John Burton distinction between conflict and a dispute, this is a dispute). Then BI becomes relevant.  Bill Zartman's essay on how to promote ripeness would probably be one worth looking at right now —  we will try to feature that in an upcoming newsletter.

So let's now look at Bill Zartman's essay about ripeness. Bill starts out by explaining that

While most studies on the peaceful settlement of disputes focus on the substance of the negotiations, the timing of the negotiations is also key. Parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so [emphasis ours] — when alternative, usually unilateral, means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties feel that they are in an uncomfortable and costly predicament. At that "ripe" moment, they seek or are amenable to proposals that offer "a way out." . . .

The concept of a ripe moment centers on the parties' perception [emphasis ours] of a mutually hurting stalemate (MHS) -- a situation in which neither side can win, yet continuing the conflict will be very harmful to each (although not necessarily in equal degree nor for the same reasons). 

Many see this conflict as being at the MHS stage.  Neither side seems likely to achieve a decisive victory, and certainly both sides are hurting. But that doesn't matter if the parties themselves don't perceive the situation this way — and they do not.

Hamas presents a particular challenge in this respect.  They don't seem to care particularly about the damage that is being done to Gaza — by firing rockets, hiding out, and storing ammunition in and under civilian areas (including schools, hospitals, and mosques). They designed this war to maximize casualties.  Martyrdom for Hamas' core believers is widely seen as a valiant calling in Islam, and the promise of bliss in the afterlife is very appealing to people whose earth-bound life is miserable and hopeless.  So Hamas gains by making earth-bound life miserable and hopeless.  Plus, civilian casualties are great public relations tools.  The whole world sympathizes with the Palestinians, often including Hamas, and demonizes Israel for occupying and asserting security control over Palestinian lands and for brutally attacking them now. That Israel hasn't been occupying Gaza since 2005, that it unilaterally withdrew then in an effort to give "land for peace" a chance, doesn't matter.  That Hamas has been shooting rockets at Israel from Gaza time and again, ever since it gained control, that on October 6, 2023 Israel and Hamas were in the midst of a ceasefire, that they intentionally put their civilians at risk doesn't matter. Hamas wins, the longer the war drags on.  They see themselves as playing "the long game" and perceive Israel as much weaker because they are much less willing to accept the casualties and other sacrifices that war requires. 

But what choice does Israel have?  Israelis have no other place to go and no choice other than to defend their country. Even if they believe they are in a MHS, what is "the way out?" There seems to be none. That is the huge problem — one that is growing by the day.  Guy has long noted how long it takes us in America, not at war, with a highly developed economy, to build a large building.  A new addition to our local university has been under construction now for two years.  One building.  How long is it going to take to rebuild all of Gaza from rubble?  And who is going to do it? And pay for it? Where are Gazans going to live in the meantime? How are they going to make a living? Who is going to rule Gaza in the process? Can the diversion of reconstruction aid to build even more tunnels be prevented? The way in which these difficult issues are ultimately addressed will determine whether this is the last war, or the prelude to the next war.

In his second essay entitled "Ripeness Promoting Strategies," Bill wrote:

The absence of ripeness does not mean we should walk away and do nothing. Too often, the absence of ripeness is cited as an excuse for total disengagement [by outside parties] However, that is when efforts are needed more than ever to move the conflict to the point where it is susceptible to mediation or negotiation. If a conflict is not ripe, it can be ripened, and if an interested party cannot ripen it, it can position itself for later involvement. Indeed, if ripeness is not present, its components can serve as a target that helps identify obstacles and suggests ways of handling them and managing the problem until resolution becomes possible. 

So what would it take to make this conflict ripe?  Creating a viable "way out" seems crucial.  The "way out" cannot be the complete victory of one side over the other.  There has to be a livable future for both groups. Hamas (and the Palestinians, more generally) likely would accept an end that would implement a "one state solution," in which Jews would either be a persecuted minority or would be driven out of a new "Palestine" which would  stretch, as the slogan goes "from the river to the sea." Conversely, there are doubtless those in Israel who hope for a future in which Israelis establish permanent residency in much of Gaza and the West Bank, many Palestinians decide to move to neighboring Arab countries, and the Palestinians that remain become peacefully integrated into Israeli society, much as Israeli Arabs are now. There is also a more compromise-oriented outcome that would be good for both Israelis and Palestinians (but not Hamas). It would involve ending the threat from Hamas by somehow neutralizing the vast majority of  its fighters and establishing a more responsible system of government for the Palestinians — one focused on advancing the interests of the Palestinian people and finding an equitable way of coexisting with Israel. There are, of course, lots of reasons why all three of these options are unrealistic, and why continuing conflict seems inevitable. 

This is where another fundamental conflict resolution concept comes into play.. This one is Fisher, Ury, and Patton's concept of a "BATNA" — the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.  They argue in their best-selling book Getting to Yes, that parties won't negotiate if they think they have an alternative that will result in a better outcome than what they can get from negotiation.  From this rational perspective, the role of the international community, right now, should be to help make it clear that, after adjusting for the transaction costs of continued fighting (which, of course, are considerable) and the risks of defeat, both side's BATNAs are clearly worse than what they likely could get in some sort of coexistence-based peace agreement. The International community is trying to convince Israel that this is the case. Government leaders and world public opinion has so turned against Israel, denouncing their behavior in Gaza as "genocide," that Israel has to be wondering how long it can sustain its offensive. (Indeed, as we write this, they are announcing that they are beginning to scale back their effort.)  As pressure from from Israel's strongest supporter, the United States,  builds, Israel is likely to conclude that it has no real choice but to end its attack.

Why isn't the same pressure being put on Hamas?  Why isn't anyone calling for them to stop shooting rockets into Israel?  Why isn't anyone demanding that they stop using their own citizens as human shields?  To stop stealing humanitarian aid to bolster the war effort?  As long as they can continue to behave in this way, they "win" because of the outpouring of sympathy they get for the Israel-induced suffering of their population — sympathy that neglects Hamas' role in producing the suffering. The leaders, who are largely located outside of Gaza, have nothing to gain by negotiating, and everything to gain by continuing the war.

This way of thinking suggests that a "way out" might be achieved by altering Hamas (as well as Israel's) BATNA. In addition to pressuring Israel to end the war and, doing all that it can to avoid harming civilians, the International community needs to to make it clear to Hamas that its strategy of building global support by cultivating Palestinian suffering is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Funds stolen from the Palestinian people by corrupt Hamas officials should be frozen.  And, much more pressure should be placed on them to release the hostages and quit launching rockets from areas where refugees have assembled, thereby drawing Israel's fire.

Situations Where the Theory of Ripeness Does Not Apply

It is also important to note that Bill's notion of ripeness is predicated on the idea that those involved in wars (or even intense nonviolent conflicts) are fighting to make their vision for the future a reality, and to prevent their adversaries from achieving their incompatible goals. It is based on the rational argument that partially achieving one's vision for the future is preferable to the continuation of a lengthy and costly fight in which the prospects for eventual victory are, at best, uncertain.

This concept, however, breaks down among those who see the glory of the fight, not the attainment of some future vision, as most important. This has long been a problem.  Warriors who, in the midst of battle, enjoy great status, often don't have the skills or the interest to be leaders in a peacetime society. After leading soldiers in an heroic campaign, who wants to help manage a municipal utility?  This problem seems to be an especially acute amongst Hamas' jihadi fighters (and across the Muslim world) — people have fallen into the trap of thinking that the ultimate goal in life is to martyr oneself in the battle against the enemies of Islam. It is hard to imagine how those who aspire to be suicide bombers could refocus their goals toward the mundane tasks associated with helping to build a peaceful and prosperous society. And, it is easy to see how they would always be able to find some enemy of Islam to fight against.  This explains why almost all of the victims of Islamic terrorism are other Muslims. Especially worrying is the fact that small groups of people who adhere to such beliefs can inflict enormous damage upon the larger societies to which they belong — societies that, overall, might be quite hostile to their extreme beliefs.

On  one final matter, looking back and thinking about Jack's question about why we said "BI wasn't relevant to this situation," I realize that my answer was grounded in the idea that Ashok Panikkar presented so clearly in his recent blog post "Growing Strawberries on Coconut Trees: The Nature of Peace and Peacebuilding in a Collectivist and Illiberal World." Indeed, most of the "solution" materials were written by people who were optimists, just as Ashok described. Most of the essays assume that processes and outcomes that model Western liberal culture and values will be eagerly received because they are "obviously" better than violence and authoritarian modes of social organization.  Sadly, as Ashok pointed out so clearly, much of the world does not agree with this worldview, and Western models of conflict resolution do not work as effectively (or at all) in such places.  


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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

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