Symmetry and Fairness in the Middle East

Sanda Kaufman

Professor of Planning and Public Administration at the Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Let's use the state with the Middle East example for a moment and talk about interveners' perceptions of symmetry and fairness when you go into a conflict you're mediating or some sort of process that involves two parties, which we will either assume are symmetrical or treat as if they were.

A: I have been pondering this situation and now I have to say that it's partly because I am a stakeholder and every now and then I have this sense of lack of fairness and lack of justice in the way that people treat the conflict and talk about it and describe it, very often out of necessity to appear neutral or just. People talk about the situation in the Middle East by saying, the Israelis did this, but the Palestinians do this too. Everything is held as equivalent and our sense of fairness is that if we didn't do this it would be unjust to one of the parties. But I think that that's much more an artifact of our perception of justice than what actually happens on the ground, and I also think that this distortion that comes from our need to portray everything as symmetrical has important consequences for what we propose as fixes and for how we deal with the situation.

... One may care more or less about this, but just stating the fact should be correct and should match the reality rather than the symmetry. ...

Q: So the initial approach and framing of the conflict from an outsider who says that these parties are symmetrically good or bad, or have done symmetrically peace-building or peace-destroying actions, will determine the process that you use to mediate the conflict, and ultimately will distort what's really on the ground so that you won't come up with a good agreement to settle.

A: Actually, I don't want to say good or bad because I don't perceive these things necessarily as good or bad. They are whatever.


But if we want to say facts matter, they should basically get through in some way and inform what we propose as strategies because then we're going to be more successful if our strategies match the reality on the ground, then I think this is very important. Again, it's another form of humility to keep checking that it's not a frame and that it's actually the reality that we're talking about. Taking the good-bad dichotomy out of the description of a situation probably helps. Just recognizing facts on the ground is very helpful. Labeling them good or bad puts us in a situation where we feel the need to balance, as it were, and make it symmetrical so that nobody's good or bad in the situation.