When Conflict Resolution Fails by Oliver Ramsbotham

The Blurb On The Back:

Bringing warring parties to the negotiating table is the aim of any peace process. But what happens when those negotiations falter and conflict resolution fails? Is everything lost, or are there prospects for meaningful change in even the most intractable of conflicts?

In this insightful book, leading scholar-practitioner in conflict resolution Oliver Ramsbotham explores the phenomenon of radical disagreement as the main impediment to negotiation, problem-solving and dialogue between conflict parties. Taking as his focus the long-running and seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and Palestine, he shows how what is needed in these circumstances is not less radical disagreement, but more. Only by understanding what is blocking the way and by promoting collective strategic engagement within, across and between the groups involved can deadlock be transformed.

Rich in detail and accessibly written, this book introduces a new and as yet relatively unexplored frontier in conflict studies. Its wider application to other phases, levels and war zones holds out rich promise for extending conflict engagement in some of the world’s deadliest and most difficult hot spots. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Oliver Ramsbotham is Emeritus Professor of Conflict Resolution at Bradford University and President of the Conflict Research Society and in this dense but accessible book aimed at non-academics with little knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he analyses why traditional conflict resolution strategies fail and argues that highlighting differences and radical disagreement is a more effective way to achieve success.

From the off it should be said that although aimed at non-academics, Ramsbotham does include a fair amount of academic theory underpinning conflict resolution within the book (which is necessary in order for him to formulate and expand upon his own arguments). For the most part I was able to follow this theory, despite having no background in the subject – largely because Ramsbotham makes good use of examples (specifically tying points into the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and illustrations to expand on the points but the theory is quite dense in places and some parts necessitated re-reading a couple of times before I got the gist of it. It should also be pointed out that the main criticism of the book is that having been written in July 2016 it has, necessarily, been overtaken by the fast-moving events of the last couple of years but while the facts may have moved on, the underlying arguments remain relevant and I did come away from it feeling that I had more of an understanding to the blocks on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and why they have taken the positions they are in.

The book begins with a summary of the history of conflict resolution in terms of the main drivers behind its establishment as a discipline in the 1950s and the lessons learned from its successes and failures. What’s particularly interesting is Ramsbotham’s repeated point that the purpose of conflict resolution is in fact to overcome and end violence rather than the conflict itself, which he believes is necessary as a continuing force to challenge and overthrow unjust and inequitable systems and societies. In this way he highlights the Northern Ireland Peace Process as a settlement that enabled the conflict to be continued through non-violent means rather than a resolution in and of itself – a point that is particularly pertinent and poignant given the current suspension of the Stormont process.

Ramsbotham emphasises the importance of analysing the disagreements that exist within the parties to a conflict as a means of understanding the drivers to each side’s position and the main blockers to a resolution, which he believes can be resolved through collective strategic thinking by working out who those groups are, what they want, and how that can be achieved. I found this argument compelling – especially given the way in which so many high profile disputes these days seem to involve the negotiators playing to their home audience as much as arguing against their opposition. He also emphasises paying attention to the lived experience of each side in a dispute such that rather than diminish their experience (and in turn focusing on objective common ground gains) the hurt and pain and sense of injustice that they may have suffered is in fact acknowledged and explored. This ties in with his thrust of focusing on the radical disagreements rather than finding shared experiences on which to build on because these disagreements themselves can provide an opportunity to build trust and communication.

Where the book is particularly strong though is when Ramsbotham goes through the background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, analysing it by reference to the theories set out in the book. I’m someone who tries to keep up on world affairs and, prior to reading this, thought I had a decent general knowledge of it but Ramsbotham really gives a lot of background to each side and the history and positions within the dispute, which opened my eyes to a lot of things I had not been aware of before in terms of why each side is in the place that they are, e.g. how John Kerry’s attempts to broker a solution in 2015 misjudged the feelings on both sides and practicalities that prevented a quick resolution coupled with Palestinian suspicion of America’s closeness to the Israeli regime. Ramsbotham is also good at highlighting how the Palestinian side has changed its own strategy towards the peace process, in part due to the efforts of internal groups, such that its appeals go outside the Oslo process and towards engagement with the United Nations and international community (including, increasingly, through social media).

Ultimately, I thought that this was a fascinating read and although it is necessarily of its time, many of the arguments are convincing and interesting and it has helped me to inform myself better on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such that I feel I have a better understanding of it now.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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