A major theme in current Palestinian-Israeli discourse is the topic of unilateralism. This discussion arose in part because bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians reached a stalemate. The recent election victories of Hamas and Kadima have only intensified the debate because neither party has shown the slightest interest in talking with the other about reaching a two-state negotiated settlement. Given these realities, some form of unilateralism appears, at least in the short-term, to be the only option open to the parties.
Nevertheless, this assessment is not entirely pessimistic because a strategy of coordinated unilateral action - reciprocal unilateralism - may, in fact, be the best course of action for the difficult period ahead.
In stark contrast to bargaining strategies that seek explicit and formal agreements consisting of specific concessions and compromises, reciprocal unilateralism focuses on incremental steps in the pursuit of mutually desirable goals and intentions. While bargaining produces treaties, reciprocal unilateralism aims at informal arrangements that can later be codified into formal agreements. Although reciprocal unilateralism comes in many forms, scholarly attention has focused principally on three: "tit-for-tat", GRIT (graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction), and conditional reciprocity (Bunn & Holloway, 1998).
Tit-for-tat first rose to prominence with the publication of Robert Axelrod's renowned book, The Evolution of Cooperation. Using game theory, Axelrod demonstrates that cooperation based in reciprocity can thrive and endure even in an environment where more exploitative strategies are being played. The reciprocal strategy that worked best was tit-for-tat. Tit-for-tat begins with a cooperative move and then responds in kind to the move it receives in return. In other words, if the opposing player replies with an antagonistic gesture, tit-for-tat will respond in a similar manner. In this way, tit-for-tat rewards cooperation and punishes hostility, and this characteristic set of moves is its most outstanding feature.
GRIT is a strategy formulated by Charles Osgood in the 1960s to counter the escalating arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. With GRIT, one side undertakes moves whose express purpose and principle intent is to reduce the distrust of the other side. The other side is then invited to respond in kind, but no attempt is made to specify exactly what this response should be. Future concessions are not made contingent on how the other side reacts - although the message is clearly sent that, if some appropriate reciprocation is not forthcoming, the further moves will not be considered. The first move by one party is followed by a reciprocal move by the other side and a similar invitation to respond. Ideally, this process produces a decline in tension and an increase in trust and leads to the preconditions for successful formal negotiations and, ultimately, an end to the conflict.
Finally, conditional reciprocity involves a prior consultation between the parties in which initial action is made contingent on the explicit or implicit promise of a specified response from the other side. This approach directly addresses problems of uncertainty by making clear what the initiator expects in return and, thus, establishes the standard by which the other side's response will be judged. It also counteracts the tendency for the other side to simply "pocket" the benefits without responding with a comparable offer.
The historical record suggests that the most successful unilateral strategies have featured a conditional component (Bunn & Holloway, 1998) while quantitative studies indicate that GRIT has been more effective than tit-for-tat in establishing the reciprocity needed to address the difficult issues surrounding a stalemate (Goldstein and Freeman, 1990). These conclusions lead to the tentative suggestion that conditional reciprocity and GRIT, or perhaps some creative combination of the two strategies, offer the best prospects for dealing with prolonged and intractable conflict. A brief examination of the strengths and weaknesses of each approach helps to establish the parameters within which an innovative strategy of reciprocal unilateralism might emerge.
The strength of conditional reciprocity is that it seeks to build upon the common interests that both parties have already acknowledged while its chief limitation lies in its inability to expand this initial domain of common interests beyond what the parties have already recognized. Another shortcoming is the lack of persuasive evidence that cooperation on critical issues will arise solely from the principal motivation at work in conditional reciprocity, namely each side's pursuit of its own self-interest.
In contrast, GRIT may have a greater effect on changing the "enemy images" that fuel conflict since it uses unsolicited gestures to signal a willingness to pursue common interests to an adversary who has heretofore seen the conflict in zero-sum terms. Nevertheless, GRIT also has shortcomings that need to be taken into account. In particular, the work of Lee Ross on "reactive devaluation" strongly suggests that the mere act of offering a concession decreases its perceived value in the eyes of the recipient (Ross, 1995; Ross & Ward, 1995). As a result, the receiving party is apt to see unilateral concessions recommended by GRIT as token or deceptive and, thus, having little real significance. Moreover, one might argue that, if the relationships required to make GRIT work were in place, it is not entirely clear why GRIT would be needed. In other words, it is the relationships and not GRIT per se that account for the parties' success in working together.
Beyond these considerations lies a more fundamental issue of whether reciprocal unilateralism can actually build the trust needed to transform intractable conflict. While explorations of trust often focus on whether the parties fulfill each other's expectations, Russell Hardin (2002) maintains that trust instead has to do with a "rational expectation about the self-interested behavior" of the other person or party (p. 6). To say that I trust you means that I have grounds for thinking that you will be trustworthy (p. 1). These grounds have to do with the way that my interests and yours are related; namely, that I think it is in your interest to take my interests into account when you act. I trust you to recognize this fact and act accordingly - and on that basis I believe you are and will continue to be trustworthy. In other words, I trust you to the extent that I believe my interests are encapsulated within yours and that you, as a rational human being, will therefore give appropriate weight to my interests as you pursue your own. It should be emphasized that trust of the sort described here is not based on the belief that we have identical or even compatible interests (pp. 4-5). Rather, it is grounded in my assessment that your self-interest entails making sure that my interests are impacted in a positive way (or at least not impacted in an overly negative way).
This notion of trust as encapsulated interest is closely related to what my colleagues and I have called the shared futures question, which we regard as so central to the achievement of genuine peace as opposed to cessation of hostilities that we sometimes term it simply the peace question (Bland 2003, 2004; Bland, Powell, & Ross, 2006). This question challenges each party to articulate a vision of the future that includes a place for the other that they will judge to be minimally "bearable." In all likelihood, this place will be less than what they sought, and it will, almost certainly, offer less than what they feel is their just due. Nevertheless, it is a place that offers an everyday life for one's family and immediate community that one could live with. Unless a place for the other is envisioned and credibly communicated, all negotiation - as well as any other attempt to define mutual interests with regard to particular issues - cannot be expected to bear fruit. In other words, I must feel that a bearable future for me is encapsulated within the future you are pursuing, and you must feel the same about the future that I am pursuing.1 The issue of credible communication is vitally important in this regard because each side must believe that the other side's articulated version of the future corresponds to their real intentions rather than to a way station in the struggle to achieve its "real," longer-term objectives. Parties establish their trustworthiness by demonstrating to the other side that they will honor their commitment to act in this manner.
To build trust, a strategy of reciprocal unilateralism - either GRIT or conditional reciprocity, or even some imaginative combination - must first establish the foundation for trust in the vision of a shared future and then validate the trustworthiness of the parties through coordinated unilateral actions. It will involve each side proving to the other side - by deeds as well as words - that it understands the encapsulated nature of the other side's interests within their own, and vice versa. Independent self-interested action that also promotes the interest of the other side speaks for itself in a way that negotiated concessions, encumbered tradeoffs and coercive tactics, cannot. Still, by itself, this form of unilateral action is not enough. The parties must further demonstrate that the encapsulated nature of their own interests causes them to place value on the relationship itself. Only in this way can the parties seek to expand the domain of trustworthiness in order to deal with issues that are currently intractable.


Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York, NY: Basic Books Inc.

Bland, B., Powell, B., & Ross, L. (2006). "Building a Peace Constituency: The Achievement and Implementation of a Peace Agreement in the Middle East." The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts: Vol. 3 Interventions. Eds. M. Fitzduff & C. E. Stout. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Bland, B., (2004). Beyond Cheap Talk: Fruitful Dialogue and Building Productive Working Relationships, SCCN Working Paper, group/sccn/Final Cheap Talk 10-1.htm.

Bland, B., (2003). Creating a Political Language for Peace: Grass-Roots Dialogue within a Peace Process. SCCN Working Paper, group/sccn/CD-SCCN Peace.htm.

Bunn, G. & Holloway, D. (1998). Arms Control without Treaties? Rethinking U.S.-Russian Strategic Negotiations in Light of the Duma-Senate Slowdown in Treaty Approval. CISAC Working Paper,

Goldstein, J. & Freeman, J. (1990). Three-Way Street: Strategic Reciprocity in World Politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hardin, R. (2002) Trust and Trustworthiness. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Osgood, C. (1962). An Alternative to War or Surrender. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Ross, L. (1995). "The Reactive Devaluation Barrier in Dispute Resolution." Barriers to Conflict Resolution. Eds. K. Arrow, R. Mnookin, L. Ross, A. Tversky, & R. Wilson. New York: Norton, pp. 30-48.

1 Although peace cannot come about unless the parties address the shared future question to each other's satisfaction, real peace will require more. Both sides must also feel that a shared future is better for them than what they are likely to achieve through a continuation of the conflict. Moreover, each side must believe that this is true for the other side as well, or it will anticipate that the other side will reinitiate the conflict at a time and under circumstances of its own choosing.