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Bites from the classroom: Principled Negotiation

By Shreya Das

When the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David started, the sides’ positions were completely opposed to each other. Egypt insisted on complete sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula (which Israel had occupied in the 1967 six-day war), while Israel insisted on keeping control of at least some of the Sinai. Map after map was drawn, each with different dividing lines. None managed to meet the positions of both sides simultaneously.

The strategy of negotiation between parties in conflict is primarily based on positional bargaining, i.e. holding on to and repeating a fixed idea without considering the underlying interests of the other party. Such negotiation, based on its nature, can be classified into soft and hard negotiations. Soft negotiations prioritise the cordial relationship between the two parties and make compromises while looking for a quick settlement; hard negotiations, on the other hand, constitute the typical scenario of international high-level talks and they aim to achieve maximum benefit for the individual party. Most importantly, in positional bargaining, a consistent, unwavering argument becomes a part of the person, and therefore, the person becomes part of the problem.

Although these types of negotiation have been the rule of the game, they have nonetheless, in most situations, proven unsatisfactory. The Harvard Negotiation project challenged exactly this sort of a positional negotiation.

The strategy of principled negotiation, as an alternative to positional bargaining, emerged as a result of such predicaments faced by the common negotiator. In Roger Fisher and William L. Ury’s book Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In, the importance of principled negotiation over positional bargaining is explained. The method of principled negotiation is based on four important principles:

Making the problem a separate entity from the people involved, understanding that the conflict may be subjective and involving the ability to analyse the other party’s view, making it easier to focus on communication, common values, and variety of flexible solutions that each side has to offer.

Focusing on interests, not positions, two things that often get confused with each other and lead to an erroneous understanding of the other party’s demands and interests; Interests rather than positions have to be negotiated, because behind opposed positions may lie compatible interests.

Inventing viable options for mutual gain once interests have been acknowledged, which should be concerned with multiple strategies of different strengths to benefit from.

Insisting on objective criteria while making decisions to ensure the presentation of facts and legitimate options.

In Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury illustrate the importance of principled negotiation by examining the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David. “Looking to their interests instead of their positions made it possible to develop a solution. Israel’s interest lay in security; they did not want Egyptian tanks placed on their border, ready to roll across at any time. Egypt’s interest lay in sovereignty; the Sinai had been part of Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs.” (Fisher and Ury, 1981). By reframing the conflict in this way, a solution was reached. Egypt was given full sovereignty over the Sinai, but large portions of the area were demilitarized, which assured Israel’s security at the same time.

Carter also followed the concepts of principled negotiation insofar as he focused the negotiation on the substantive issues in dispute i.e. sovereignty and security concerns, and used shuttle mediation to avoid the very severe “people problems” (antagonism) between Anwar el Sadat and Menachem Begin. Shuttle mediation prevented them from meeting each other face-to-face anytime except at the beginning and the ending of the negotiations, and aimed to convince them to shift from position to interest. He also used interest-based framing to allow the two sides to invent options for mutual gain–a way that they could both get what they needed at the same time.

Israel wanted security and to keep Egypt at bay by securing their borders. Thus, the peninsula meant nothing to them other than in terms of security. But for Egypt it came to be an integral issue of sovereignty. Thus when there was a shift from positions to interest, then the whole picture changed to needs of security versus sovereignty.

This same reason of positional bargaining can be argued to have led to the failure of talks between USA and USSR at the beginning of the Cold War. Both parties could not agree upon the number of inspections in a year in each other’s country. Disarmament and the arms race was the main issue. Ury and Fry to this suggested that there should have been a clear definition of what “inspection” meant instead of arguing along their respective positions. The problem was accentuated with the presence of no neutral third party. Although just this week a settlement was reached between the US and Iran, we can in general see the same problem today regarding the international community putting pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear capacities.

Shreya Das is a student of the Graduate Certificate of Public Policy.
This post is part of a series by the students of the GCPP. Other posts from the series can be read here.

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