Mediation is Only a Stop-Gap Measure

When US President Jimmy Carter brought Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin together at camp David in October 1978, not many people gave the attempt at peace a chance of seeing the light of day.  The conflict over the Sinai Peninsula appeared entirely intractable:  Egypt demanded an immediate return of the entire Sinai. Something that Israel, having occupied the Sinai since the 1967 Middle East war, was unwilling to do. Carter’s initial efforts to meditate a settlement, proposing a compromise in which each nation would retain half of the Sinai, proved completely unacceptable to both sides.

President Carter and his staff persisted, eventually discovering that the seemingly irreconcilable positions of Israel and Egypt reflected underlying interests that were, after all, not incompatible. Israel’s underlying interest was security: Israel wanted assurance that its borders would be safe against land or air attack from Egypt. Egypt was primarily interested in sovereignty—regaining rule over a piece of land that had been part of Egypt as far back as biblical times.

After thirteen days of hard work, and twenty-three draft agreements developed by Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders, Carter’s persistence as a mediator paid off. Israel agreed to return the Sinai in exchange for assurances of a demilitarized zone and new Israeli air bases. This agreement was put into effect in April 1982, and continues to the present day.

Mediation entails the use of a third party to help resolve an existing conflict. What is unique about mediation is that the resolutions are developed by the conflicting parties, and the mediator’s sole role is to facilitate the process as opposed to dictating what to agree on. Mediation is therefore parties-oriented.

As the above example shows, mediation involves agreements that are implemented by the parties in a defined way over a period of time. While lauding mediation, future uncertainties make mediation a stop-gap measure to a conflict and in no way a longer term resolution. While the conflicting parties may initially agree on positions and negotiate in good faith, regimes change and leadership changes. In the event a regime opposed to the initial agreement takes over, it is inevitable that the outstanding parts of the deal may be thrown away, reigniting the conflict.

I argue that mediation is an important strategy to bring parties in a conflict to the negotiation table; however, it should not be viewed as an end in resolving a conflict. Ultimately, it is the representatives of the conflicting sides that negotiate, and not all the people. And it is not possible to satisfy all group interests.

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