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Marriage Lessons for Mideast Peacemakers


As President Obama prepares to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a White House Peace Summit this week, lessons from the trenches of marriage education and reconciliation offer a foundation for success.

Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas
Marriage Education Tips for Netanyahu and Abbas

By Seth Eisenberg

The world’s eyes, ears and prayers will turn to Washington this week as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet face-to-face to resolve one of the world’s longest-standing conflicts.

No sooner was the September 2nd White House Summit announced before skeptics began predicting failure. Pundits claim both leaders are focused on strengthening relations with the U.S. as opposed to each other, that core issues represent irreconcilable differences that will not be bridged for generations, and that domestic politics will torpedo even the faintest glimmers of hope.

Hoping they’ll prove their critics wrong, lessons from the trenches of marriage education can provide a valuable foundation for the launch of talks that offer the best hope for helping millions achieve a better future and contributing to vital American national security interests.

Having spent much time with Mr. Netanyahu years ago when he was Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations and I directed U.S. activities for the American branch of Israel’s Likud Party, I have no doubt achieving a lasting peace that brings security to Israel and prosperity for all the children of Abraham is his most cherished ambition. I also know history, intelligence, and security concerns mean he will arrive in Washington looking for tangible signs of good will and sincerity from the Palestinian leader.

As I thought about the upcoming Summit, I remembered a conversation with the late Virginia Satir more than 30 years ago not far from where these leaders will meet. Satir is known as a pioneer in the field of marriage and family therapy and a range of educational programs that emerged from her visionary work. The approaches she developed, including those woven throughout PAIRS classes that have helped preserve thousands of families and prevent countless divorces, continues to influence many of the most effective counselors, mediators and peacemakers the world over.

What makes your work different?” I asked Satir as a teenager with little knowledge of her international reputation.

“When I work with couples and families, instead of focusing on differences,” she answered, “I begin by helping people recognize how much they share in common and build from there.”

Satir explained that most people, especially those connected by family, culture, and geography, share perhaps 95 – 99% of the same interests and aspirations. “The problem is that many approaches begin by looking at what’s wrong instead of what’s right,” Satir said.

Undoubtedly, Israelis and Palestinians share much in common. From geography, passion, and faith to honoring family, culture, and history, Netanyahu and Abbas represent millions of people who at the very least are cousins. Building from those shared interests and values, issues such as separation, armaments, family reunification, the influence of meddlesome outsiders, security and hope for their children could be resolved in fairly short-order.

In politics, as is too often the case for families and marriages as well, the problem when people remain adversaries in the face of seemingly shared values and workable resolutions is to surface hidden agendas.  Long ago, I embraced the wisdom that when a person’s actions and words convey different messages, it’s wise to pay more attention to actions. From time immemorial, those who have committed humanity’s worst atrocities have done so behind the guise of false words and deceptive intentions.

While the Israeli leader will surely not wager the survival of his nation on blind faith in the good intentions of longtime adversaries, the negotiating teams’ ability to embrace lessons central to marriage and family reconciliation offers a path to success or, if the skeptics are to be believed, quick realization that their efforts will not bring peace.

  1. Valuing others begins with valuing ourselves. People of high self-worth are much more likely to embrace the worth of others, regardless of differences. The leaders would be wise to begin by genuinely focusing on what they admire and appreciate about each other and the people they represent rather than the differences they seek to resolve.
  2. When people feel devalued, they often seek to make others responsible for their perception and misfortune. While learning from past experiences is critical for any endeavor, blame itself is unhelpful and destructive to even the most well-intentioned efforts. Reconciliation becomes possible through inspiring and building upon a shared vision for the future.
  3. Solutions are more likely to emerge from an environment of mutual respect and empathy. The leaders should seek to understand how it feels to be the people they’re facing. “How does it feel to be you? What is it like to live with you? In all the world, you’re the only person exactly like you.”

For marriages, families and nations, it takes strong, confident people to create a future in which cherished wishes, hopes and dreams have the greatest opportunity to be realized. Unfortunately, much of life’s promise and resources are too often squandered by failure.

The ability to embrace the wonder and miracles of our lives and the humanity of others with knowledge that people generally do their best, including being able to laugh at ourselves as we struggle in the process, offers real hope for healing and peace no matter how wide the gulf may appear.

Seth Eisenberg is President of PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in marriage education and relationship skills training for over a quarter century.

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