By Stephen Oryszczuk.
When I was young, I heard an oil boss talk at a conference. I remember in vivid detail the way he spoke and the way he held himself, but I only remember one of his actual answers. It was in response to a question about the way people react to organisational change.
When faced with change, he said, people fall into one of three categories: Optimists, sceptics and cynics.
Optimists tell you what a wonderful idea it is, how it’s long overdue, how the world will be much better for it.
They often turn out to be fools or liars: fools for not really thinking it through, liars for saying they’re on board when they’re not. He didn’t trust optimists an inch.
At the other end, cynics were a lost cause, he said – unable to change their thinking, forever convinced it wouldn’t work. Not only were they of no use whatsoever, he said, but they were actually poisonous, infecting the thoughts of those around them.
The only feelings they would ever illicit were ones of ill will, and with the best will in the world, that would never change. His advice to the assembled managers was to get rid of the Cynics, quick.
That left the sceptics, the largest and quietest group, neither blindly positive nor pre-programmed negative. They had their doubts, saw both risk and reward, and needed convincing that obstacles could be overcome, risks mitigated and nightmares avoided. But if they saw that it was workable, and worth it, they would get on board and be the idea’s greatest champions. That’s why this titan of the oil industry said he poured all his time and effort into them.
I was reminded of this lately, when digesting the commentary surrounding the resumption of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
It made me wonder whether the oil boss had named two groups too many. In print and online, in articles, opinion pieces, letters pages and internet forums, a never-ending line of so-called journalists, analysts, observers, experts and assorted other talking heads lined up to spout the same old nauseous view that it would all come to nought.
Maybe. Probably. Everyone knows the chances of a breakthrough are slim. But the tone – of outright certainty of imminent failure – struck me hard. I know full well that there are no Optimists when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, but the sneering cynicism saturating the column inches took me aback.
I take issue with it, and here’s why.
If these doom-mongers were doing their jobs properly, they would have to recognise that half the battle is getting the parties to the table in the first place. To do that, you need agreed terms of reference, which always have to be agreed beforehand, regardless of what anyone tells you.
Well-placed Israelis say they’ve been trying to do this for years. So seeing chief negotiators sat side-by-side therefore means huge strides have been made behind the scenes.
Those same pugnacious pundits would also recognise that the seismograph needle has been twitching of late. Abbas dropped his very public refusal to engage without a settlement freeze. Netanyahu spent precious political capital bullying his cabinet into releasing prisoners. These were not just gestures.
Remember that stalls were set out behind trench-like preconditions, and that positions were hardened to the point of crystallisation, and you realise that what you’re seeing is significant, not symbolic.
Yet you’d never know it from the blogs. This nexus of naysayers greet these things with the same cheap cynicism they greet everything, and it is depressing in the extreme.
They even write roughshod over the rapidly changing nature of the debate. As a journalist, I am naturally interested that thorny issues are being tackled, not tickled. That concrete and realistic ideas on borders are being debated. That numbers are being crunched, figures bandied round and views converging.
That even hawks such as Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin now talk about proposals that could come close to something an incentivised Abbas could sell. To me, and to most, this is ear-pricking stuff, but to the hardened cynic, it’s merely fluff.
Like most, I have deep reservations, and have no doubt the grass may not be greener on the other side. But I’m not blinkered, and do not feel suitably qualified to damn both process and conclusion before it even begins. Equally, I am not lazy enough to write about how it will all fall flat in the end, despite this being the far safer option. I am, in short, a proud sceptic.
Scepticism is not mysticism. It does not require you to suspend your belief in all things rational. Nobody is under any illusions. Everyone knows it will be tough. Expectations are few, stakes are high and the situation is complex. But under such circumstances especially, that same old standard view – that it’ll all end in tears and misery – adds nothing.
Let’s be rid. At least while there is that faint and familiar whiff of hope.