Weaving a silver lining

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 19 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: On the heels of the prisoner swap, a new deal is afoot. According to the New York Times the American law student Ilan Grapel, a 27-year-old from Queens in New York who is also an Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt in June and charged with spying for Israel is expected to be released in the coming days in exchange for scores of Egyptians held in Israel.

What’s up?

Representative Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat from Queen says: We are extremely close in this complicated deal. Eighty Egyptians arrested over the Israeli border on drug and other charges will be exchanged for Mr. Grapel.

The New York Times said Mr. Grapel and his family have consistently denied that he had any links to espionage. A graduate of Johns Hopkins, a student of Arabic and a former paratrooper in the Israeli Army, he was wounded in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Mr. Grapel came to Cairo in May to work for a nonprofit group helping refugees, according to his family and Mr. Ackerman. He went to Tahrir Square frequently and made no secret of his Israeli citizenship. On his Facebook page, he displayed pictures of himself in Israeli military uniform.

Twice I’ve been accused of being a spy. Both based on a former life as a BBC correspondent who covered the 1973 war from the Israeli side. The first accusation led to my home in America being turned over. Checked out, I was cleared.

More recently I was subjected to house arrest for a few hours and then released. Since then my computer bears the brunt of someone’s ire.

Pish posh. The accusations are nonsense.

Like Grapel I’m no spy. Like him I have an inquisitive mind.

The exchange of prisoners was arranged in meetings at a hotel in Heliopolis with a German diplomat coordinating the discussions between Hamas and diplomats from Israel and Egypt.

He was able to iron clasp the intricacies of the swap. Eventually the paperwork secured the bargain.

As we saw everyone kept their word. The exchange went off without a hitch.

Successful bargaining means looking for positives in every possible circumstance.

If I can trade off issues that I care about more and you care about less, then we’ve been able to create value in a transaction, says Margaret Neale, professor of organizational behavior and director of two Stanford Business School executive education programs in negotiation.

That’s the silver lining, she says.

A common mistake in negotiation is when both parties want the same thing. Your boss says he wants to promote you by heading up a new team. Great, you think. I want you to go to Assiut and set up our operation there. We’ll be creating new jobs for 150 people. OK?

At home you consider the options. You can’t expect to get everything I want, so you’ll accept the compromise. Maybe your boss has someone else in mind. Perhaps he’ll hire that person and never talk to you again.

Harvard University says 20 to 35 percent of the students assume that a situation is a fixed pie and miss an opportunity to get what both parties want.

Israel was not compelled to make a prisoner swap. Neither was Egypt. Domestic issues are paramount. Egypt’s rulers are focused on preserving their credibility and providing security for the forthcoming elections.

Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization have other fish to fry. Both are languishing in a lassitude. They’ve been unable to give their supporters hope let alone economic improvement.

On the other hand, the international community sees the Middle East as a bulwark of their survival. Where else offers so much opportunity for economic improvement?

The region has the largest number of youthful aspirants demanding a better life. They’ve demonstrated their rejection of authoritative regimes that steal their money and trump up charges against anyone who disapproves.

No matter how many bullets they fire into the crowds, the protesters return with a simple demand: Give us the right to determine our own future.

They don’t have to provide evidence of their betrayal. Others are coming forward with foreign bank accounts that list hundreds of millions of dollars looted from the public purse.

Switzerland’s belated admission that the Mubaraks have a few hundred million stashed away is the tip of an iceberg. London and New York should come clean as well.

How do we do that?

Harvard suggests one way to get inside your opponent’s head and influence his attitude is to shape the issues for him, a technique called framing. If you get your opponent to accept your view of the situation, then you can influence the amount of risk he is willing to take.

In the same way that Gilad Shalit was released.

The key parties, Egypt, the United States, the EU and the Gulf States should assemble and face up to one question: Who is holding how much from the former rulers of Egypt?

Next step: ask the International Monetary Fund to examine the books. After that: Produce a reckoning.

Then Egypt can make the arrangements to transfer the money into the Finance Ministry.

If the holders, probably investment banks, baulk, Egypt can play its cards. To Britain: Let’s renegotiate oil and gas deals. To America: Let’s renegotiate landing rights for your aircraft. To the rest: Let’s up your fees to use the Suez Canal by 50 percent.

The interim Egyptian government has scored a goal with the release of hostages.

Why don’t they capitalize on their success?

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


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