Simulating Mideast Peace: IR class schools students in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy

Volatile and opaque politics in the Middle East continue to leave onlookers uncertain. With another round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks having begun on Sept. 2, the topic is rife for academic study. Nevertheless, past case studies of Israeli-Arab relations often serve as exceptions to many political theories. Without a consistent theory, teaching the dynamics of the Middle East conflict often requires putting global politics into do-it-yourself action.

Claremont McKenna Professor Edward Haley has conducted peace talk simulations in his annual seminar “The United States, Israel, and the Arabs” for over 20 years. Students choose their country and work in a group consensus format. As a class, they conduct months of strategic planning, practicing, and researching. They announce public goals and secretly debate private ones.

Haley meets with them regularly, and enjoys working as a facilitator and advisor rather than a judge. “I will evaluate them eventually, but it will be based on goals they set themselves,” he explained, adding that simulating politics helps bring students and text together, rather than traditional lecturing and filling their brains “like pouring water into a vessel.” When students strive for self-devised goals, Haley said, they are “more responsible and work ten times harder.”

The first steps in the process are researching the topic and planning the conference agenda. According to Haley, the biggest challenge is for students to persuade the others to make concessions or agree with their position. Maintaining cordiality is critical. “Back when Israel was opposed to any settlement, delegations still had to appear reasonable and plausible in front of the Palestinians,” he said.

Since the peace talks involve multiple actors with different level of interests, students can acquire the arts of diplomacy, negotiation, and group dynamics. Haley recalls CMC alum Luke Johnson ‘09, who represented Israel: “During the talks [Johnson’s] face would sometimes flush, but he never raised his voice.” The Palestinian delegations later debriefed that they had a good impression of him, “but you didn’t give us anything!”
While the simulations are intellectually challenging, students also become personally involved: tempers flare and faces flush during heated negotiations. “One year, students were so enmeshed [in the simulation] that they stayed in character outside of the talks. They debated with each other in Collins and their dorms. There was no limit!” Professor Haley recalled. “Of course, the chemistry within each group varies, but all of the members are caught up in the enthusiasm.”

In particular, Haley was very moved by former seminar students who went against their personal loyalties. “Of course, I had staunch American Jews who were extremely passionate when defending the Israeli position, but there were also Israeli students who chose to represent the Palestinians and contributed tremendous amounts of effort in doing so,” he said.

Since the simulations replicate the world, talks are often frustrating and cruel to the Palestinian delegation, which has little political leverage. During the Second Intifada, one Palestinian delegate in Haley’s class exclaimed during debriefings that the Israeli and U.S. representatives “would not even look at us during the talks.”

“We could be either be passive or walk out,” said Pomona senior Michael Levine, a former Palestinian delegate. Yet walking out would result in international scorn and let Palestinians down. “The thought processes and decision-making factors at play were very realistic,” he noted. “The very situation I have described here played itself out [recently] when Israel ended its ban on settlement expansion and Palestinians remained in negotiations.”

Haley allots students considerable leeway in devising creative solutions. As a result, some simulated events actually anticipated reality. In 1992, the simulation’s Palestinian delegation eventually offered to denounce terrorism and recognize Israel; a few months later, in real life, the PLO officially recognized Israel.

This semester the simulated peace talks will continue. On Nov. 13 and 14, a new group of students will participate in another round. But will the students’ outcomes provide hope for the actual delegations?

Wendy Qian is a junior at CMC declared as government and media studies dual major. She is a staff writer ("Beijing correspondent" :) for the Port Side and loves critical theory, postmodern philosophy, and rock music.

One Response to “Simulating Mideast Peace: IR class schools students in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy”

  1. Anna says:

    Why wouldn’t you write this article AFTER the simulation, so you could report on how it actually goes?

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