Commentary: One Perspective: Negotiations can rise, fall on timing

By Steven I. Platt

The Daily Record Newswire

"When is the right time to negotiate?" is a question being asked in every corner of the world. From our local communities to the world stage which provides the backdrop for diplomacy and battlefields, negotiation will determine not only the quality of our daily lives but also, in some cases, our continued existence.

The quality of our daily lives is affected by the answer to those inquiries in multiple ways ranging from the mundane and parochial, e.g. will we have a National Football League season to enjoy this year to whether we will be able to live unthreatened in a flattened world with our "neighbors" in the Middle East and Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring?

Which of these issues is more important depends on whether the analyst is on the couch with a beer on a Sunday afternoon in the fall or on the streets of Washington, D.C. or an Arab capital this summer.

The latest international context for "when is the right time to negotiate?" was broadcast recently in soap-opera style. It began with President Barack Obama's speech on the Middle East which was hyped in advance as his effort to jump-start the renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

That speech preceded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit here by 48 hours. The focus of the instant and arguably incorrect analysis of the speech's content regarding returning to Israel's pre-1967 borders as the basis for renewed negotiations offended Netanyahu, which resulted in a televised lecture and history lesson for the president on the virtues of recognizing historical realities as the basis for future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

It also raised the question of whether the right time to renew those negotiations was now or later -- after formal recognition and reconciliation of those historical realities, including the recent agreement between Hamas (which does not recognize Israel's right to exist) and Fatah to jointly govern and speak for the Palestinians in any future negotiations leading to the recognition of a Palestinian state.

The answer to the question of when is the right time to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will now unfortunately be answered at a later date and will be more dependent on political factors and high-level personality clashes than it should be.

Nationally, we see the question of "when is the right time to negotiate?" being posed most often in the context of federal, state and local governments trying to address a mounting debt crisis.

At the federal level we hear ominous warnings from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others that we have to negotiate an increase in the statutory federal debt limit or face a default which has the potential to cause a financial crisis far worse than the one we are recovering from, as well as destroying the world's confidence in our country's economy and with it our economic stability and credibility.

Weighing against this are both Republican and some Democratic political voices saying that the negotiations to raise the debt limit and prevent a default should not start until the Obama administration and congressional Democrats agree to negotiate both an increase in the debt limit and spending cuts equal to the increase.

Democrats respond either by seeking either to separate the issues of raising the debt limit from spending cuts or to consider revenue-raising proposals, at least in the form of eliminating certain corporate and special-interest tax breaks.

In between childish accusations, these elected officials are very simply being irresponsible and ignoring what clearly must be done. The time to negotiate a resolution of the debt limit and dealing with the federal debt crisis is now or before now. That obviously means that the debt limit, spending cuts and revenue enhancers should all be on the table for discussion.

The people we elected "to do the right thing" should recognize, as Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard political science professor and contributing writer for The New York Times and now a member of Canada's Parliament and deputy leader of Canada's Liberal Party has pointed out: "Good judgment in politics is messy -- it means imperfect compromises that always leave someone unhappy -- often yourself."

Political theater has visibly intruded on policy development as it so often does in our representative democracy. This is natural. But the staging of political theater should not drive the timing of policy-making and its implementation.

Wise political leaders will not confuse the world as it is with the world as they, their handlers and advisors might wish it to be. Nor will they assume their world view is presumptively correct and therefore should not be questioned in negotiations.

In other words as former New York governor and, as it turns out, prescient political philosopher, Eliot Spitzer said, citing theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr as his authority, "Driven by hubris, we become blind to our own fallibility and make terrible mistakes."

The challenge at all levels of society and government is to how to determine the right time to negotiate.

We need to understand, as did Dr. Aaron Miller, Fellow of the Princeton University Center for Scholars, in rejecting the conventional wisdom suggested by comedian Woody Allen that "90 percent of life is just showing up."

Dr. Miller correctly noted: "Woody Allen was wrong -- 90 percent of life is showing up at the right time."


Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George's County Circuit Court, can be reached at

Published: Fri, Jun 10, 2011