Updated: Jun 6
I met Issa Kassissieh for the first time in 2003 at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. I had just begun my Master’s in Public Administration, thanks to a generous fellowship from the Wexner Foundation, and Issa was a Mason Fellow.
This meeting with Issa, and the relationship we developed, was among the most significant experiences in a year packed to the brim with significant experiences.
It was quite absurd that we met for the first time in Cambridge MA, considering we lived and worked in close proximity to each other in Jerusalem for many years without ever knowing it. Issa is a Palestinian patriot who had worked to promote the self-determination of the Palestinians as an advisor to the late Faysal Husseini and, later, to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. I am a diehard Zionist, an Israeli diplomat, and served as an advisor to the late Shimon Peres when he was Foreign Minister and later when he was President of Israel. Together Issa and I learned the power of the joint problem-solving approach.
We became friends, but also “study buddies” because we had the same interests and took many of the same courses. We learned about each other and about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through our personal relationship. We sat next to each other in our “Adaptive Leadership” class and practiced “crossing boundaries” and “getting out of our comfort zones” in our personal friendship in a way that mirrored many of the same elements present in the greater geo-politics of our two nations.
My Israeli friends and I were debating whether or not we should do a presentation about Israel in our “Mid-Career” seminar, a weekly gathering of the entire cohort for a student presentation. As a diplomat, I was quite comfortable with the idea of presenting my country in front of my peers, but Issa suggested that we could do a presentation together about the Israeli Palestinian conflict instead—not exactly my comfort zone.
I was worried that it would become another confrontational debate such as most of the encounters I heard of between Israelis and Palestinians on campuses. I wanted to avoid the “blame game” which I considered classic “work avoidance”. More than anything, I was worried that it would hurt my friendship with Issa. After bringing up my concerns to Issa, we decided we’d do it differently. We’d use this as an opportunity to implement a lesson of reframing, a technique we learned in our Leadership class. We decided to reframe the conflict in our presentation from one between Israelis and Palestinians to one between those who seek a peaceful solution and those who were against it. This reframing positioned us on the same side, even though we had very different perspectives and narratives based on our national belongings and past experiences.
The “Adaptive Challenge” that we identified was how moderates on both sides of the conflict can empower each other in order to promote a solution. Issa explained that if we will not empower the moderate Palestinians, we will remain only with the extremists who believe in terror. Issa was cognizant of the fact that Palestinian terror crushed the Israeli peace camp and understood how immoral and counterproductive it was to the Palestinian cause.
Our presentation became very popular and we quickly began receiving requests to co-present in Jewish communities around Boston. For many of the Jews who turned out for these events, it was the first time they ever met a Palestinian or saw the human side of the so called “Other.” Issa presented the Palestinian case in a very effective and assertive manner, but not in a confrontational approach, which made his arguments accessible to the ears of Jewish audiences.
Later, in a workshop about integrative negotiations, Issa and I learned about the Joint Problem-Solving approach, which required that we both face the problem rather than confront each other. We learned about the power of a Win-Win approach that was so contrary to the zero-sum mentality all too prevalent among Israelis and Palestinians.
When we graduated in 2004, I was invited to participate in an initiative called IPNP (Israeli Palestinian Negotiation Partners) at the Roger Fisher House. This initiative brought together a group of Israelis and Palestinians who were selected as current or potential future negotiators in order to learn the “Getting to Yes” method developed by Professor Roger Fisher. Until then, my career was mainly focused on the Israel–US relationship, but thanks to Issa, who was on the steering committee, and Dr. Shula Gilad, who led the program for Harvard’s Project on Negotiations, I was given the opportunity to participate.
It was a transformational experience on multiple levels. Not only did I have a chance to learn and implement the “7 Elements of Effective Negotiations” (i.e. Interests, Legitimacy, Relationship, Alternatives, Options, Commitments and Communication), I was also afforded a unique opportunity to network and build friendships with Palestinians who were passionate about peace and diplomacy, a passion I share.
Two years later, when I returned to the Boston area as the Israeli Consul General to New England, I brought with me many of the insights that I learned through my relationship with Issa and tried to spread the same approach that we adopted as students.
As Consul General I worked tirelessly to reframe the discussion around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the usual “blame game” towards constructive engagement. I worked to promote dialogue groups on college campuses and supported coexistence organizations. Whenever I was told by my staff that there was a pro-Palestinian demonstration outside the Consulate, I would ask if we can join, because one can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel at the same time.
I tried to initiate a joint group of Palestinians and Jews from the diaspora in Boston to learn together from the experience of the Irish diaspora. After all, the Irish Bostonians changed course from supporting the IRA to supporting the peace process. That process was led by Senator George Mitchell and eventually achieved the “Good Friday Agreement.” The Bostonian Irish community understood that supporting peace and economic development in Northern Ireland would be more helpful to the Northern Irish Republic cause than sending arms.
I thought that it could be a great case study for the Jewish and Palestinian communities, who I envisioned would eventually support an economic coexistence project between Israelis and the Palestinians on the ground. Unfortunately, this initiative did not materialize because our Palestinian partner relocated to Washington DC and my post in Boston ended swiftly thereafter.
After returning to Israel in 2010, I renewed contact with Issa. A year later, I was appointed as diplomatic advisor to President Peres, and Issa oversaw the Negotiations Support Unit of the Palestinian Authority, later becoming the Palestinian Ambassador to the Holy See.
We both had a dream to arrange a joint prayer for peace with the participation of President Abbas and President Peres during a visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land. I am a secular Jew and Issa is a secular Greek Orthodox Christian. Both of us have nothing to do with Catholicism, but we felt that Pope Francis was a unique leader who can contribute to peace. During the meetings between President Peres and Pope Francis that I was fortunate to take part in, I could feel the Pope’s radiant personality and warm heart.
We couldn’t get the joint prayer to take place during this historic visit. But we didn’t give up. Through the great connections of Henrique Cymerman (a prominent Israeli journalist with international connections) and Rabbi Skorka, (a personal friend of Pope Francis from his times as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires), we were able to help arrange an invitation from the Pope to both Presidents for a joint prayer in the Vatican with religious leaders from the three monotheistic religions. Our friendship and joint problem-solving approach helped to make this historic event a reality.
The story of Issa and me is not just a story about two individuals. I strongly believe that the Israeli–Palestinian challenge can only be solved by using a win-win approach. The two-state solution is not only the preferred solution, it is the only solution. The BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is much worse. Israel will not be able to remain a democracy and the homeland of the Jewish people in a binational state. The Palestinians will not be able to achieve their desired freedom and statehood if we can’t reach an agreement. The current predicament, where we must make their life miserable in order to protect our life, is corrupting our morals and is not sustainable in the long term.
I am not belittling the challenge – we will have to give up sovereignty in some of the places that were the cradle of our people, such as Hebron, Shiloh, and Bethel. The Palestinians will have to give up the dream of sovereignty in places they considered home in Haifa, Jaffa, etc. The Palestinians will have to give up full implementation of the claim for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. Israel will have to find solutions for the settlers who would not be able to remain after land swaps (most will be able to stay in the settlements adjacent to the Green Line). But the outcome, a lasting peace, will be better for both peoples.
It is not a “pipe dream”, even though most individuals on both sides of the conflict have just about lost hope. We have a much better Palestinian partner than we’ve ever had. With Abbas the ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement) exists. Abbas is not claiming the whole of historic Palestine as the PLO claimed in the past, and not even the pre - ‘67 borders. The Palestinian leadership accepted the ‘67 borders (in 1988) and equal land swaps during the negotiations between Abbas and Olmert.
Abbas is not demanding to have a military and is even willing to accept a demilitarized state with international protection. Abbas is totally against terror and believes in diplomacy as the way to achieve self-determination (bilateral if there is a partner, or multilateral if bilateral negotiations become futile).
The Arab states made a huge strategic change in their approach towards Israel. From the famous “Three No’s” of the Khartoum Arab League Summit in 1967 (No to recognition of Israel, No to peace with Israel and No to negotiations with Israel) to an “Arab initiative” that accepts Israel as part of the region and part of the solution. The Arab initiative that has been ratified every year since 2002, accepts Israeli veto on the number of refugees that will come back to Israel proper (“A just and agreed solution to the refugee problem”).
In order to get to this kind of solution, we need brave leadership that understands that we can, should, and will achieve the two-state solution by employing a Joint Problem-Solving approach. Our current approach does not empower the moderates or diplomacy, but rather empowers Hamas, a terror organization.
I am proud to say that the Joint Problem-Solving approach and the win-win perspective is leading our vision and projects at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Cooperation in medicine, education, business, entrepreneurship and the environment between Israelis and Palestinians and between Arabs and Jews within Israel is what we do every day in order to achieve peace and coexistence.
But the Peres Center does not deal with the political aspects, and so we need that kind of approach to come from our politicians. I wish that both Issa and I will be able to help bring the day when our two nations will join together on the side of peace and mutual understanding, just like we have done in our friendship.