Sherwin Pomerantz

Negotiating in the Middle East

In what can only be called a surprise move, former U.S. Secretaries of State Kissinger and Schultz co-authored an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal criticizing the framework agreement reached in Switzerland last week with Iran.

In their analysis they posit that the framework agreement with Iran effectively concedes any option of using military force to compel Iranian compliance. To quote: “Mixing shrewd diplomacy with open defiance of UN resolutions, Iran has gradually turned the negotiation on its head.  Iran’s centrifuges have multiplied from about 100 at the beginning of the negotiation to almost 20,000 today. The threat of war now constrains the West more than Iran.”

“While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal. In the process, the Iranian program has reached a point officially described as being within two to three months of building a nuclear weapon. Under the proposed agreement, for 10 years Iran will never be further than one year from a nuclear weapon and, after a decade, will be significantly closer.”

Seeing this I realized that the gulf that has developed between Israel and the U.S. regarding how each views this situation is really caused by the failure of the U.S. and the West to understand the negotiating mentality of the Middle East.

As Kissinger and Schultz rightly note the West saw Iran’s coming to the table as a major concession and, therefore, felt obligated to make whatever concessions it had to make in order to come to some agreement.  But Iran came to the table because the economic sanctions were crippling their economy and making life miserable for the Iranians.  They did not deserve any gifts just for agreeing that they had been beat.  Rather the screws should have been applied to accomplish the stated goal of preventing nuclear arms development.  The West did not understand this but Israel did, and so did many of our neighbors in the region.

Israel knows that in this part of the world when you enter negotiations you make as many outlandish demands as possible with both sides knowing full well that many of those demands are simply unreasonable, but are able to be conceded during the negotiation.  If you don’t go into negotiations with such demands, you simply have nothing to concede.  So when Netanyahu says now that the West should not sign a final accord with Iran unless Iran acknowledges Israel’s right to exist, he knows full well that they can never do that as it would be against the basic religious tenets of the mullahs who run the country.  The same is true for demanding a full stop of their nuclear development capabilities, that is also not realistic.  But that needs to be the starting point of negotiations with an adversary in this part of the world.

The West on the other hand, led by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry but smartly challenged from time to time by the French, went into the negotiations seeing the Iranian side as elucidated by Kissinger and Schultz that “Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession.”  By agreeing with that point, and entering the discussion in that state of mind the West projected weakness to the Iranians and the Iranians took advantage of it.

In a word, we who live here survive in a souk mentality where everything is a negotiation, where each side starts with outlandish claims they know will never be realized and where, even after the negotiation there is often a re-negotiation, as there will surely be with this framework agreement as well.

There is an old story about a negotiation for a price that went on here for hours and, after it was concluded and a price of 650 was agreed upon for the item in question, the buyer began to pay the seller in Israeli Shekels to which the seller responded, “Shekels?  I thought we were talking about dollars.”  At which point, of course, the negotiation began anew.

This is what Netanyahu understands and what Obama fails to internalize.  We do not live in a world where moderation and compromise are the watchwords.  We live in a world where the last thing anyone wants to be is a frier, which, in Hebrew means a sucker.  You never walk away from a deal thinking you have been made a sucker.  In this case the West simply does not realize yet that they have been suckered by Iran.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 32 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.