East vs. West, a critical cultural gap

I just returned from a business trip to an area where I have a reasonable amount of experience – South East Asia, particularly Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.  For some reason, this time around, likely as a result of an error of judgement on my side and an experience I had as a result at one of the meetings, I was gently reminded of one of our biggest problems when dealing with the East.

This is a problem not only I have been aware of for some years: We (when I say we, I mean people raised and educated in Western societies, including Israel) are focused and mission oriented, we want to accomplish a task, run down a list, register a sale, make a point, prove our professional competence, establish our technological expertise, all activities controlled by the left side of our brain. We look at things, at situations, at processes, at facts. That’s us, rational, all the way.

And our potential partners from the East? They come to meet us, the people, the nice (or not so nice) guys or gals. They want to connect at the personal level, exchange attitudes, feelings, talk and laugh, have lunch together. To some extent they want to be soul-mates or decide, upon reflection, to rather not be. They don’t bother to focus, they look at the whole picture, all the time. And the part of their brain that is deeply involved in all this is the right side, emotions galore.

And what about the issues and projects we came to discuss ? They are more or less dealt with, if at all, tangentially, definitely not as the center of attention. If anything, they are the means to an end – to get to know each other. That is the reason why many of the substantial meetings in the East are held over breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are, in fact, more often than not, social events, not really business meetings.

When thinking about the meetings I had, I realize that my partners rarely connected to the projects I proposed or the issues I raised.  They connected (if they did) to me, to my passion for the subject matter. They did not know enough about the technologies I suggested to gage them. The reason they continued to listen was that they felt comfortable, thought they may have a partner, somebody who could and would do something new and profitable with them, somebody to relate to, somebody to share things with.

This cultural disconnect where each side comes to a different event, we come to accomplish a mission, our partner comes to meet us, has the potential to produce considerable frustration, even anger, on both sides: We want to talk business and they don’t, at least not right away, we feel that they are wasting our time, they think we are short-tempered and rude.

On the up-side the cultural-disconnect lends itself to some really revolutionary arrangements: If it’s all a people thing and the issues are secondary, it means that literally the sky is the limit regarding the potential for finding common ground or contemplating joint ventures. That is, of course, once you understand the problem and start to connect at the people to people level.

Now let’s take this to the political realm and our relationship with the Palestinians and the Muslim world in general: As a rule, we make almost no attempt at warming up the public atmosphere before engaging in negotiations. As a matter of fact we do the opposite and often go out of our way to insult the other side. It’s called posturing and it sets a very unpleasant tone. It also cues our own population to the tune of things to come: This is not going to be a meeting of minds or a love-fest, heaven forbid, but a fight, just not on the battlefield but at the negotiating table.

We will always emphasize the issues that we insist on like security, safe borders, a united Jerusalem, recognition as a Jewish State, a demilitarized Palestinian state, retention of the settlement blocks. When mentioning the other side we doubt their seriousness (“no partner”), emphasize their corruptness and call into question their capabilities (“they don’t control Gaza”). We almost make a point of making sure that on a personal level, the atmosphere will be poisoned. We are there, after all, to discuss issues, not to relate to people.

The mission oriented nature of our attitude is further emphasized by giving the negotiations a set time frame: Nine months. Translating this into the other culture it is like saying we have nine months to develop our relationship. Why put a time frame on the development of the relationship ? Because we really are not into developing the relationship. We are on a mission. And a mission, unlike a relationship, is finite by design. Once we have accomplished the mission, it’s done. Or so we think.

But in reality, we are developing the relationship or at least that is what we should be doing: Once the mission is completed (let’s say, for the sake of argument we signed a peace treaty with the Palestinians) it is not done. This really is relationship building, not a mission to be accomplished.

But here is the sad truth: We do not want to relate to the Palestinians (or our Arab neighbors in general) as people who we want a relationship with. We feel that we already have a relationship, a pretty bad one. As a matter of fact we want to establish some framework (a peace treaty?)  which wil make it possible not to have a relationship with them. That is quite possibly the main reason that we have never responded to the one Peace Initiative that expressly promises to establish a relationship with all the Muslim nations in the world, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.  We want separation, on our terms preferably. We want to be part of the neighborhood and our neighbors to accept us but at the same time remain as separate as we can possibly make it. Hmmm..

Interestingly enough we frequently do relate to the Palestinians in terms of personal relationships: We talk of a bad marriage and that we have to separate or divorce and split the joint property (the Land of Israel). Nevertheless, when we negotiate the terms of this divorce in which we want to protect our assets (a.k.a. the settlements) we don’t use a mediator, social worker or psychologist, we use a battery of lawyers. And that is what it looks like: A courtroom fight where each side tries to score points with the public emphasizing the dastardly side of the opponent while the lawyers try to hack it out.

This attitude is destructive and will get us nowhere. Our negotiators must be people oriented, culturally aware and easy going. Their aim must be to develop the relationship, to change the existing one, not to accomplish a mission. They must be supported by public statements that are positive and respectful of the other side. Because in reality we need to change our mutually harmful “occupation” relationship  into a positive long-term “living with mutual respect” relationship.

If we don’t go that way, we will fail in our objective to obtain a peace agreement, if indeed that is our objective and we will be worse off than when we started this round of talks. A lot worse. But remember the up-side: If we do go that way and do make the connection at the people to people level, the potential to achieve really powerful compromise solutions is huge. Think positive…

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is a member of the Council for Peace and Security and was a candidate in Labor’s 2012 primary election for the Knesset list