What if the photo op that came out of this current round of talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials was not of respective leaders meeting face-to-face across the table with a U.S. politician grinning in the middle, but instead of leaders walking together, side by side, on the land that connects and divides them? Though the concept of top-level negotiators hiking in the wilderness together may seem farfetched both the history of the Palestinian and Israeli negotiations and scientific research suggest that access to natural settings can contribute to peacemaking.
Over the past few months, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has engaged in intense efforts to reignite “final status” talks between Israelis and Palestinians. News of the resumed talks has met with a wide range of skepticism and an overwhelming sense that “we” (Israelis, Palestinians and Americans) have been here before. Given the failure of would-be Middle East peacemakers to facilitate constructive discussions in the last 20 years, perhaps negotiators and their leaders should once again walk a path to peace.
While the official signing of the Oslo Accord took place in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1993, the agreement was actually named in honor of the 14 secret meetings that took place in the Norwegian countryside between Israeli and PLO representatives from January to September of that same year. The so-called “Norway Channel” meetings took place not over a table, but in front of the fireplace, in rooms with spectacular views and outside. According to Jane Corbin’s 1994 book, The Norway Channel: The Secret Talks that Led to the Middle East Peace Accord, the negotiators walked together in the woods, along lakes and at the fjords, in what Corbin calls, “the Norwegian way of solving problems by communing with nature.” Uri Savir, an Israeli diplomat and politician who participated in the meetings and is now the Director of the Peres Center for Peace, is quoted in Corbin’s book, “Oslo spirit – this special harmony you conveyed to us, between man, nature and conduct – was contagious in creating a new Middle East spirit.”
Human beings have sought tranquil wilderness places as a way to rest their mental facilities for centuries. Now there is an increasing body of scientific research that provides evidence for why and how interaction with nature promotes cognitive functioning and overall well-being and suggests how it can increase the likelihood of progress towards peace. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, colleagues and collaborators at the University of Michigan, began to study the psychological benefits of spending time in nature in the 1960s. Their work and the work of their protégés has established strong evidence that being outdoors has a profound, positive impact on people’s mental functioning, social relationships and even physical health. Conversely, a lack of access to natural, restorative settings can lead to “directed attention fatigue,” a state characterized by impulsivity, distractibility and irritability.
In a recent study, Dr. Kaplan, along with other University of Michigan psychology researchers, found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent after people spent an hour walking in nature. You don’t even have to enjoy the walk. The researchers found the same benefits when people walked in warm or freezing cold weather.
Another student of the Kaplans, Marc Berman, a neurologist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute, is using functional MRI to watch people’s brains as they look at images of nature. Berman found that contemplating nature causes hemoglobin levels to drop in the prefrontal cortex and rise in other parts of the brain, particularly those associated with emotion, pleasure and empathy. The result is similar to the effects witnessed in the brains of meditating Tibetan monks.
Interacting with nature may also have real, measurable benefits for creative problem-solving, according to a 2012 study published by psychologists from the University of Utah and the University of Kansas. A group of men and women participating in four- to six-day wilderness immersion hiking trips organized by Outward Bound improved their performance on creativity and problem-solving tasks by 50 percent.
As the Executive Director of Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding, I have witnessed the transformation that comes from harnessing the restorative power of nature to peacemaking. One young political leader, who participated in a program that brings together Israelis and Palestinians for unique wilderness expeditions, described the experience, “We talked to one another and started to get to know each other on a personal level. Three mountain tops and one river later, we understood that we are all connected and became a family. No more “other side.” We learned to listen to each other. We learned to care.”
The special harmony of the Oslo spirit has died in the ensuing decades. Yet regardless of political agreements or setbacks, Israelis and Palestinians are connected by land, water and history. It is time to consider new ideas for building trust and fostering peace in the Middle East. A joint hike cannot serve as a substitute for a true commitment to peace, but the benefits of interacting in a natural setting might provide the focus, attention and creativity necessary to end the suffering that this conflict brings to all sides. Secretary Kerry should tell the negotiating parties to take a hike for peace.
Ana Cutter Patel is the executive director of the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding
Professional Bio: Ana Patel is the Executive Director of the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding, an independent member of the Outward Bound global community that uses experiential outdoor learning to challenge and inspire leaders divided communities to work together to build peace. Ms. Patel has over 20 years of experience in the fields of peacebuilding, development and human rights with organizations such as the International Center for Transitional Justice, the United Nations Development Programme, the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict and The Andean Development Bank. Prior to her current position, she served as Deputy Director for International Policymaking of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), and was Program Manager of ICTJ’s research initiative on Transitional Justice and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR). Ms. Patel has been an Adjunct Lecturer with the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University since 2001. Her co-edited volume, Disarming the Past: Transitional Justice and Ex-combatants was published in January 2010. Ms. Patel was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She is a graduate of Lewis & Clark College and received a Master’s of International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.