The Power of an Apology


Critics who accused President Obama of leading an “apology tour” during  his early foreign trips might claim some vindication from this week’s  presidential visit to Israel, which culminated in a spectacular apology that took place in a trailer at the airport as the president was about  to depart for Jordan. But it wasn’t President Obama who was apologizing.  The president instead acted as a mediator in brokering a restoration of  diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey. In order for that to  occur, it was necessary for Israel to apologize to Turkey for mistakes  that occurred during the 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish ship trying to  run the blockade of Gaza. Clearly, both Israel and Turkey will greatly  benefit from the restoration of normal relations. Improved relations  will bolster the security of both countries in the face of violence in  Syria and elsewhere. Israel also gains some international respect, as  Turkey has already tempered some harsh criticism of Zionism, which may  have laid the groundwork for this week’s action. But some  Israeli hard-liners are already criticizing the apology. Are there any costs to Netanyahu and Israel in expressing  regret and sorrow for the Israeli military action in 2010?

Those who resist making apologies rely on a couple of arguments. One is  that the party being asked to apologize has nothing to apologize for.  This view is often expressed by American conservatives, who seem to  argue for a doctrine of American infallibility. Thus, no matter how much  other countries might perceive us as a bully, no matter if we sometimes  make strategic military mistakes, we should never apologize because we  are always in the right and always a force for good in the world. That  is an argument based on pure arrogance. Countries that do not  acknowledge their mistakes only lend further support to negative  perceptions. Israeli hard liners can argue that their country had every  right to enforce a naval blockade, an action that every sovereign nation  has the right to engage in when permitted under international law. But  these same defenders of Israeli prerogatives should also take enough  pride in the Israeli military to be able to claim that Israel tries to  use force sparingly and to minimize unnecessary casualties. And no  matter how precise and well-planned a military operation may be, it  probably could have been even more well-planned and precise. That means  there is almost always something to apologize for.

Another argument is that apologies make nations appear weak. That means  that even if leaders recognize that they made some mistakes, they should  still never acknowledge those mistakes, because that will cost them  respect. Those who make this argument should have the burden of proving  it. They must demonstrate that if Israel covers up or refuses to  acknowledge any operational errors in its military missions, that will  cause the country’s enemies to respect it more. Even if they could make  that case, which seems doubtful, it would be an odd position to take for  a country that prides itself on democratic institutions, an independent  judicial system, and the freedom of Israeli citizens to criticize their  own government. That means that no matter how much leaders may wish to  refuse to acknowledge their mistakes, other institutions are going to  ferret them out anyway.

In private disputes, parties often resist apologizing for similar  reasons. They are reluctant to admit they did anything wrong, and they  are afraid of some potential adverse consequences in admitting fault.  But so long as an apology is crafted in a way that it cannot be used in  court as an admission of liability—which is usually the case if an  apology instead becomes a tool to obtain a legally binding settlement  which implies a discharge of liability—the costs of apologizing usually  pale in comparison to the gains that can come from resolving the  dispute.

The arguments against making apologies thus seem remarkably weak. They  are mostly based on pride and a miscalculation of the party’s real  interests. When weighed against the remarkable gains that can come from  openly acknowledging a mistake to a party that feels wronged by one’s  actions, the costs of apologizing seem trivial in comparison. Prime  Minister Netanyahu acted wisely in recognizing that the benefits of  restoring good relations with Turkey far outweighed any risks in making  an apology for Israel’s attack on a Turkish ship.

by Joe Markowitz


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Joe Markowitz
Joe Markowitz has practiced commercial litigation for more than 30 years, both in New York City and Los Angeles, and has served as a mediator for more than fifteen years. He is a member of the Mediation Panels in both the District Court and Bankruptcy Court in the Central District of California. He is currently the president-elect of the Southern California Mediation Association.

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