Richard Rubenstein

Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason 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 ???).

A: You can ask yourself the question 'Why are the Tamils and Sinhalese sitting down and talking in Sri Lanka, and the Jews and Palestinians are not in Israel?' One answer is the same as in Northern Ireland, that the great powers who are purporting to help resolve the conflict but are actually making it worse, finally realized that they couldn't do it.

Q: They couldn't win, or they couldn't make it worse?

A: They couldn't win; they couldn't resolve the conflict. So the Indians withdrew from Sri Lanka, and the Sinhalese were pretty much going it alone anyway and didn't need outside help since they controlled the government and the army. But it's the Norwegians who were in Sri Lanka who were doing the facilitation, and it's not a done deal by any means at this point, but the parties are involved in it in part because they killed maybe 100,000 of each other just in the past 10 years, and they're tired of it.

They're getting nowhere. It was Zartman's hurting stalemate, a hurting stalemate probably in which the Indians played a role in making or at least maintaining a stalemate, because otherwise the Tamils might have just been exterminated.

In the Middle East, the great powers, and particularly the United States, still think they can control that conflict. And the deeper they get into the conflict, the more clear it becomes, especially in an election year, there is no way we can function as a neutral, or even a roughly impartial third party. So the punch line of this is, as long as the United States and other powers in other parts of the world think that they can resolve conflicts like the imperial daddy, as long as Camp David is their model - they don't realize how peculiar that whole situation was in Camp David, that it was really not replicable, in my opinion - they're going to be in trouble. It's when they realize they need to get out of the way and let the people on the scene, with some good facilitation, deal with the problems themselves, and in particular let the region deal with the problem as a regional problem, rather than as a great power problem. That's the road to conflict resolution, I think. But how do you do that?

It goes back to what we were talking about before, the U.S. public and politicians and business types, etc., need at this point to be educated to the fact that they can't do this on their own, and that they need to pull back and allow regional power to develop in a way which might seem to them at first to be a challenge to American interests, but which I think really arguably is the only way in the long run to protect American interests.

Q: So instead of Denis Ross or some American diplomat being the mediator, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, some more local, regional people should be more involved in having a sustainable process?

A: Yes. Absolutely. We even have some ideas about who those local people could be. The United States may have a role to play, the role of the great powers in this sort of situation is not to make the conflict worse. And when you're arming one side or the other or sometimes both, continually giving them the illusion that they can win, that's not constructive.

But in the case of the Middle East, look what you have available as possible mediators or possible facilitators. You have in the first place a region that has an Arab League, very sophisticated people with a lot of experience in mediation. You have powers like Jordan and Egypt who are not solemnly committed to either side in that conflict.