Israeli-Arab Negotiations 101  

Date Published:August 8, 2021

Where You Sit is Where You Stand: Table Arrangement Battles in Middle East Peace Conferences

By Joel Singer

In 1948, Rufus Miles, an American official who served in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, conceived a concept that became known as Miles’s Law: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” By this, Miles – a skilled bureaucratic operator and observer – meant that the viewpoints you are most likely to adopt and advance within an organization (such as the U.S. government) are determined in large part by the mission of your organization and your place in that organization. Miles reached this conclusion as he noticed that people who work in one department of the U.S. government tend to change their views on various issues when they move to another department, apparently to fit the interests of that new department.

In an article that I published recently in the International Negotiation Journal, I developed a corollary to Miles’s Law, which is relevant to the behavior of negotiators in international peace conferences, and which I will call Singer’s Law. This law states, “Where you sit is where you stand.”  This new principle means that unlike the organizational behavior reflected in Miles’s Law – by which individuals tend to change their positions (where they stand) as they change where they sit – in international peace negotiations, negotiators tend to insist on changing where they sit in order to project to the world their existing positions (where they stand).The article can be read by double-clicking here.


As discussed in the article, in almost every peace conference, well before the parties enter the conference room and begin to negotiate the issues at hand, there is a preliminary phase in which the parties attempt to establish the rules of the game for the talks.

In this initial phase, the parties address seemingly procedural questions, such as what issues must or must not be discussed; which parties will be included or excluded from the conference; what role any third party will have in the negotiations; whether or not there will be any preconditions for the discussions; and the place and schedule for the conference. To some, this stage may seem relatively trivial – posturing and quibbling over procedural and contextual details before the substantive negotiations begin. In fact, however, how such issues are decided can significantly impact the outcome of the negotiations. As a result, the negotiating parties tend to invest significant effort in these preliminary discussions in an attempt to shape the framework for negotiations in a manner that would best advance their own objectives or, at least, prevent their adversaries from preempting the outcome of the discussions.

Normally, questions such as these are addressed in letters of invitation or similar documents that are carefully negotiated and agreed in advance of the conference. Quite often, however, the parties’ preliminary attempts to influence the conference’s outcome also spill into other areas, such as how to arrange the tables in the conference room. Because it is quite common in international conferences to allow the media access to the conference room for a photo opportunity, the manner in which the tables are arranged could be read by the world as an indication of each party’s positions or concessions.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. No wonder, therefore, that skirmishes over conference room table arrangements are quite frequent. Paraphrasing von Clausewitz’s observation that “war is the continuation of policy using other means,” one can say that peace conference table battles are the prelude to policy using other means.

My article in International Negotiation Journal provides some prime examples of such table wars, starting with the 1968 “Battle of the Paris Peace Conference Table,” in which the parties quibbled for 10 weeks about the shape of the table at which the end of the Vietnam War was to be negotiated – eventually settling on the famous round table. The article then describes a number of table battles that occurred in various Middle East peace conferences involving Israel, on the one hand, and Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, on the other. One such example – the table battle that occurred at the 1973 Middle East Peace Conference in Geneva – is provided below.

  The 1973 Geneva Middle East Peace Conference: The Empty Syrian Table

Kurt Waldheim

On December 21, 1973, a Middle East Peace Conference convened at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 338 of October 22, 1973. That resolution called for an immediate ceasefire in the war (now known as the Yom Kippur War) which had started on October 5, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The resolution also called for the immediate implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 (which was adopted in 1967 and established the principle of “land for peace”), as well as for the immediate and concurrent commencement of negotiations “between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”

Henry Kissinger

In the intensive consultations that occurred following the adoption of UN Resolution 338, it was agreed that the conference would be convened in Geneva under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, and that the United States, represented by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the Soviet Union, represented by Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, would participate in the conference as its two co-chairmen. It was further agreed that the two co-chairmen would send an invitation to the three parties that fought in the Yom Kippur War – Israel, Egypt and Syria – as well as to Jordan, which did not participate but was nonetheless one of the “parties concerned,” having lost the West Bank to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Finally, it was agreed that the conference would begin with a ceremonial opening session attended by all participants, that would last only one day, and that thereafter the conference would break into a series of working groups in which Israel would negotiate with each of its Arab neighbors on a bilateral basis.

Hafez al-Assad

Israel, Egypt and Jordan accepted the invitation and sent delegations headed by their respective foreign ministers – Abba Eban, Ismail Fahmi, and Zaid Rifai. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who initially appeared to accept the invitation, surprised everyone by informing Kissinger, just three days before the conference, that Syria would not attend.

Notwithstanding Syria’s absence, it was decided to proceed with opening the peace conference with the other participants, while keeping an empty Syrian table at the Geneva conference room as a visible signal that Syria could still join the peace discussions at a later time if it changed its mind. Among many other issues that were discussed in the days leading to the ceremonial  opening session, but which were not resolved until the morning of the meeting, was how to arrange the conference tables.

Andrei Gromyko

As Kissinger subsequently recounted it, Gromyko proposed to Waldheim a seating arrangement that placed the UN Secretary-General in the middle, with the Soviet Union, Egypt and the empty Syrian table on one side of Waldheim, and with the United States, Israel and Jordan on Waldheim’s other side. Gromyko’s plan presumably reflected his vision that each of the two superpowers should be seated together with its two regional client states.


         Gromyco’s Opening Proposal

Kissinger, however, rejected this proposal outright. First, the arrangement could be read as an insult to Jordan. Not only did Jordan fail to join Egypt and Syria in their attack against Israel a couple of months earlier – thus missing an opportunity to credibly demand a separation of forces in the West Bank equal to what Egypt and Syria obtained in the Sinai and the Golan Heights – but locating its table away from those of Egypt and Syria would present it as an outsider to the Arab world. Second, Kissinger resented Gromyko’s attempt to present Egypt as a Soviet client, just as Egypt was making its first steps – with Kissinger’s active encouragement and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s keen interest – to detach itself from the Soviet camp and join forces with the United States.

Waldheim then proposed instead to arrange the tables in alphabetic order, consistent with protocol for United Nations meetings. While this suggestion fixed the issues posed by Gromyko’s proposal, it created a new problem, placing the Egyptian table next to the Israeli table.

Waldheim’s Proposal

When Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmi heard that his table would be adjacent to Eban’s, he demanded that the empty Syrian table be placed between Egypt’s table and Israel’s. Fahmi clearly did not want the image of his delegation seated next to the Israelis to be seen, going so far as to also tell the UN Secretary-General that, at the post-conference cocktail party, he hoped that the Israelis and Egyptians would be on two opposite sides of the room.

    Fahmy’s Proposal

Abba Eban

When Israeli Foreign Minister Eban arrived at the Palais de Nations the morning of the conference and heard about the Egyptian demand, he protested. As Eban subsequently described it, he told Waldheim that the media would likely focus on the empty table separating Egypt and Israel, adding that nothing is more ridiculous than opening a “Peace Conference” with the image of the two countries seeking to reconcile unable to even sit next to each other. Jordan too did not like this idea because Fahmi’s modification to Waldheim’s proposal would have placed Jordan’s table next to the Israeli table, again suggesting that Jordan was not as “anti-Israel” as Egypt. Thus, on December 21 – the day the summit was planned to start – the conference remained in a seating deadlock. During a meeting held between the American and Israeli delegations, Kissinger joked with Israeli Foreign Minister Eban: “I made a proposal yesterday that they should leave three seats open and let the Arabs and Israelis make a race for them.”

The table battle was finally resolved, well after the intended time for the peace conference to open, in a discussion held between Kissinger and Gromyko based on a proposal brought up by a member of the Israeli delegation during the earlier morning discussion. The Deputy Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Ephraim (Eppie) Evron had proposed to Kissinger a solution that placed Israel between the Soviet Union and Jordan, with the empty Syrian table left between Jordan and Egypt. Thus, the arrangement would be: the UN Secretary-General, the Soviet Union, Israel, Jordan, the empty Syrian table, Egypt and the United States.

       The Agreed Solution Based on Kissinger’s Proposal

Even though under this proposal Egypt’s table was not placed near the Israeli table, these two tables were not conspicuously separated by the empty Syrian table and Israel’s concerns thus were resolved. All other concerns raised by Egypt, Jordan and the United States, which none of the previous proposals had resolved, were also properly addressed. Kissinger liked the compromise idea and convinced Gromyko, Waldheim, Fahmi and Rifai to accept it. The Peace Conference could finally begin.

The 1973 Geneva Middle East Peace Conference (with the Empty Syrian Table at the Bottom Right Corner)

The Geneva Middle East Peace Conference never convened again after its ceremonial opening session on December 21, 1973. Yet, it was a first step toward an Israel-Egypt peace treaty six years later (1979) and an Israel-Jordan peace treaty 21 years later (1994). Still, while Syria finally agreed to meet with Israel in 1991 in the context of the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, as of this writing – 48 years later – an Israel-Syria peace treaty is yet to be accomplished. So, in a way, the Syrian table is still empty.

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