How to negotiate a ceasefire

Most wars end with neither side acknowledging defeat. But certain conditions are necessary for a truce, writes a former head of the Foreign Office

November 06, 2023
Ex-PM Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Image: PA Images / Alamy
Ex-PM Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Image: PA Images / Alamy

This week marks the commemoration of a famous ceasefire. At 11 o’clock on 11/11/1918, the guns fell silent at the end of the war to end all wars. In fact it turned out to be a 20-year interlude before the fighting resumed between essentially the same adversaries.

As calls for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war intensify, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, the issue of how wars end is once again acutely topical. The most powerful images that come to mind are perhaps of 1945, the joyful crowds in the capitals of the victorious allies, contrasting with the bleak deserted streets in German and Japanese cities after their unconditional surrender. 

But most wars don’t end in that clear-cut way. They end up in a more ambiguous ceasefire, neither side acknowledging defeat, both more or less dissatisfied. On the basis of my 40 years as a diplomat, I have found that ceasefires happen when three tests are met. First, are the belligerents ready to stop fighting, albeit on conditions? Second, is there an honest broker trusted enough by both sides to negotiate a deal? Third, are there third parties willing to oversee implementation, to give confidence that ceasefire terms will be respected?

On the first point, the essence of a ceasefire or armistice (much the same thing) is that it is an agreement between the combatants. Some ceasefires lead to a permanent peace settlement; others can last decades (the Korean ceasefire still holds after 70 years). In the absence of agreement, all that is possible is a brief pause or truce typically for humanitarian purposes. That is the step western leaders are now pressing Israel to take. 

Timing is crucial. If the two sides are pressured into agreeing a ceasefire prematurely, it can break down, further damaging confidence on all sides. Judging the right moment is never easy, even between states with clear war aims. It is doubly difficult when dealing with the shape-shifting Hamas, simultaneously a vicious terrorist group, a political movement and an organiser of basic services in Gaza. 

Right now, neither Israeli nor Hamas leaders seem ready to conclude they have achieved their objectives sufficiently, or are exhausted enough, to stop fighting. Both are setting maximalist conditions for a ceasefire. Israel requires release of all the hostages. Hamas says they will only give up the hostages in return for the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails (around 5,000, according to the UN Special Rapporteur last July). 

As for the second point, ceasefires do not happen spontaneously. Honest brokers are needed, using a mix of persuasion and pressure to negotiate a deal. That is the thankless task which the US has often taken on in the past. Think Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, or Habib securing the departure of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982.  

I saw at first hand Richard Holbrooke using the full panoply of US political, economic and military muscle to negotiate an end to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1995, browbeating Serbian President Milošević and the other parties to sign the Dayton Agreement. Chris Hill tried to play a similar role to head off the Kosovo conflict in 1999. But in that case, it also took 78 days of Nato bombing of Serbia. A deal was finally hammered out at a G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Berlin, with ex-Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and Russian envoy Konstantin Chernenko sent to persuade Milošević to sign—a reminder that tailor-made brokering is needed for each crisis. Even in Northern Ireland in 1998, where both sides were certainly ready for an end to the Troubles, US Senator George Mitchell played a crucial role alongside Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in securing the Good Friday Agreement.  

In the case of Israel/Gaza, I expect that the ceasefire negotiation will involve a group of countries, since no one person has the confidence of both sides. This will have to include the US as the only power with real influence over Israel, and probably also Egypt as the key neighbour and Qatar as a financial backer of Hamas.  

On the third point, ceasefires need international supervision if they are to last. The UN has often provided that, but Israel’s relations with the organisation are at rock bottom. The only possibility I can see is a group drawn from moderate Arab nations and possibly Turkey. It’s a tall order.

This year’s 11th November commemorations will take place against the backdrop of major conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. One link between them is that the US is the indispensable ally of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression and of Israel in responding to an awful terrorist attack. That puts President Biden in a position of real influence when the time comes to broker ceasefires. The way wars end has a direct bearing on whether ceasefires hold, and whether the cycle of violence can be broken. The lessons of the past are very relevant for the difficult diplomacy that lies ahead.