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Conversations at Scarfes Bar: Gabrielle Rifkind

Matthew Bell talks to Gabrielle Rifkind for our September 'Conversations at Scarfes Bar' series

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From marriage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gabrielle Rifkind talks to Matthew Bell about the art of making peace…

Conversations at Scarfes Bar: Philip MouldGabrielle Rifkind is not a household name, because people who resolve conflicts are rarely famous. But her involvement in international geopolitics is significant and far-reaching.

One minute she’ll be in North Korea, the next she’s meeting the leader of Hamas, her work all carried out in semi-secret, behind closed doors. A specialist in Middle East conflict resolution, she’s Director of the Oxford Process, an independent preventive diplomacy initiative. Her book The Fog of Peace was hailed byThe Independent as an ‘urgent toolkit of ideas that can help all sides move beyond conflict’.

What makes Rifkind particularly fascinating is that by day she practises as a couples’ therapist. The techniques she uses to resolve problems within a marriage can be applied to striving for world peace. For example, both parties have to want a solution before anything can be resolved. ‘Taking responsibility is a huge issue,’ she explains. ‘It’s one of the reasons there are so many problems in the Palestine-Israel conflict: neither side takes responsibility. Of course, there’s a huge asymmetry of power, with the Palestinians as the much weaker party, but you still have to take responsibility for how you’re prepared to move forward, and if people are not ready to do that, it’s almost impossible to make peace.’ Much like in couples therapy? ‘Absolutely.

In the psychotherapy space, so much of the work is around people taking responsibility and not just blaming others, which all of us quite like doing.’ Not that she particularly advertises her background in psychotherapy when dealing with political leaders. ‘You have to be quite careful because politicians can be uncomfortable about it.’ The important thing, she says, is to try to understand why people behave the way they do. ‘If you live in conflictual situations, how you think is very different compared to if you live in a protected liberal world.’

Her path to becoming a peace broker started when she got a job as a probation officer, then an art therapist. ‘I loved being a probation officer because I’ve always been curious about people,’ she says. ‘One of the very first things I did was to take a wife to go and see her husband, who had killed someone, and it was the ordinariness of the situation that struck me. These were just human beings. From a distance, they had done terrible things – but the truth is, I think we’re all capable of doing terrible things, given the circumstances.’

Gabrielle Rifkind - Aleaxndra

Do people sometimes enjoy conflict? ‘Some people benefit from it, they make a lot of money from it, and people who are in positions of power might have to give it up if the conflict is over – if they’ve been leading a military group, what might they do afterwards? So yes, there are probably between 10 to 20 per cent of people who actually benefit from the conflict, then there are ordinary people on the ground who really suffer.’ Does the same apply with couples? ‘I don’t think people are born wanting to have conflict, although I think if you’re born in a conflict zone, it’s easy to be brought up with the idea of an enemy. People certainly want excitement, and they want a sense of belonging.’

Not surprisingly, Rifkind is not a fan of military intervention and blames the birth of the radical group Islamic State on Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq. To apply the couples therapy technique for a moment, does it follow that Blair should take responsibility and say sorry? ‘I think it’s very difficult when so many people have died,’ she says. ‘If I was Tony Blair and said I was sorry, I might have a breakdown.’ Does she think he knows he did the wrong thing? ‘I don’t think you can allow yourself to think like that. I think you have to justify what you’ve done, that is the problem. His motives might have come from good intent, but the outcome was a catastrophe.’

How does achieving world peace work practically? Who chooses the referee? ‘I might go and talk to the Foreign Office and say: “Look, how about me trying to open these doors, what do you think?” And they might say, “Yes, so long as there’s deniability!” ’ So she doesn’t go as an official envoy? ‘No, because that comes with baggage and interest and that’s what diplomats can do. Whereas we can sometimes go to places where the official processes can’t go, or we’ll talk to people who are a bit more unsavoury.’ Who pays? ‘Sometimes governments do – the Norwegians and the Swiss spend a lot on it, the EU has at times, the British government talks about it but doesn’t very often. And then philanthropy money as well. Sometimes it’s the sale of my paintings.’

Rifkind has painted since she was 12, and every year takes August off to go and paint at her house in France. Although it’s an escape, her paintings are influenced by her work. ‘I’m interested in this idea that we have to live with opposites, with pain and pleasure, or dark and light, and it’s only when we can reconcile both that we can live not in conflict,’ she says. ‘Most people in conflict get into a sort of duality, and see things in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. To be able to peace-make you have to move beyond that. That’s what I like to paint about.’

In Brief

Country or town? Both.

Power breakfast or long lunch? I’m not a lady who lunches. I’m even known to eat my breakfast at my computer.

Rolling hills or seaside? I think I’m a rolling hills person because I can meander, think and walk – on my own.

Wine or green tea? Depends what time of day it is.

Cat or dog? Neither.

Power suits or cosy jumpers? Oh, definitely power suits.


 In Conversation with Nicole Farhi / Conversations at Scarfes Bar: Lynn Barber