Shortly before Binyamin Netanyahu began his first term of office as prime
minister in 1996, the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed
to create an environmental experts’ committee to undertake the planning and
implementation of much needed cooperation on environmental issues. Committee
members from both sides were dedicated scientists and environmentalists and were
anxious to advance projects that would protect the land, clean up polluted
wadis, develop sewage treatment plants and much more. In the aftermath of the
change of regimes in Israel, after the Rabin assassination and the failure of
Shimon Peres to win the elections, the newly elected Netanyahu set out to freeze
the peace process that he was not really committed to.
Palestinian response, like a knee-jerk reaction, was to freeze contact with
Israelis at the official level. This was just fine with the Netanyahu
government. The Oslo process had created some 26 joint committees crossing
almost every avenue of government affairs. One by one, the joint committees
ceased to function. Scheduling meetings became impossible as each side
conveniently found good excuses not to meet.
One exception was the newly
formed environment experts committee.
Together, the Israeli head of the
committee, Dr. Shmuel Brenner, the associate deputy director-general of the
Environment Ministry, and the Palestinian head, Dr. Mohammed Hmaidi, the
director-general of the Palestinian Ministry of Environment, approached the
Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, with a request for our
organization to facilitate “unofficial meetings of officials.” The officials
could not meet officially, so with the environment in mind and the understanding
that cooperation was essential, these two senior government employees found a
way to “beat the system” in the interests of both parties, knowing that nothing
good can be achieved by not talking.
Despite official decisions not to
meet, unofficial contacts continued and mutually beneficial relationships
developed that were in the interests of both sides.
I WAS reminded of
these unofficial meetings this week as we are once again in the situation where
Israeli and Palestinian officials will not talk to each other. With the
exception of continued security cooperation at the field level, and perhaps some
continued talk between those who have responsibility for day-to-day issues
concerning commerce, Palestinian and Israeli officials have been instructed by
their superiors not to meet.
Twice in the past week, we have experienced
“scheduling problems” when trying to bring together a small group of Israeli and
Palestinian officials for closed-room discussions on economic issues. Officials
from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs were refused permission to attend a
workshop on joint planning issues with Palestinian counterparts.
were in good company, because the Palestinian officials were also told not to
participate by their superiors.
At the most senior levels, Palestinians
have decided to refuse Israeli offers to resume negotiations. Their point of
view is based on years of frustration of the failure of the peace talks as they
witness on a daily basis parts of their homeland being developed under their
watchful eyes as Israeli settlements. Palestinians had hoped that the
international community, backed by the determined words of US President Barack
Obama, would force Israel to stop settlement building. But this did not
The Palestinians, having made the decision to go to the UN to
bring the Palestinian issue back to the international community, now face the
frustrating reality of failure with no chance of gaining membership in the UN at
this time. The aim of going to the UN was to create a game changer – an act that
would empower them and attempt to level the playing field to some extent. But
Israel has maintained the stronger hand and with its influence and American
support has managed to prevent Palestinian success in the international arena.
With US funding to UNESCO now being cut, even the UN Secretary General is
recommending the Palestinians drop their plans to achieve membership in
additional UN bodies.
US aid to the Palestinians is now frozen and with
no financial rescue coming from the Arab world, the Palestinians need to come up
with a new plan. In essence, both sides do. The no-talks reality is not in the
interest of either party. But before coming to the conclusion that talk they
must, it seems we are still in for more tactical steps, perhaps threats that
delay the inevitable and place some very dangerous possibilities in front of
The Palestinians are considering shutting down the Palestinian
Authority. There is talk of immediate elections with Mahmoud Abbas stepping
down. There is a possibility of financial collapse and with it the many
achievements of state building and security consolidation going down the
Israeli actions influencing the US Congress to freeze support for
the PA along with the illegal Israeli action of freezing the transfer of
Palestinian funds collected by Israel, as part of the Oslo agreement, shake the
very foundation of the Palestinian Authority and increase the risk of collapse
and a return to violence.
President Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam
Fayyad are the most determined Palestinian leaders against the use the violence
in the Palestinian struggle. It is futile and wrong to seek to punish them.
Likewise it is also clear that the strategy of not returning to the table is
equally futile and wrong. Even if the chances of reaching a comprehensive
negotiated agreement at this time with this Israeli government seem close to
nil, there is no longer a legitimate reason to reject talking.
the table, make your case, in private and in public, convince the world and the
Israeli public of your peaceful intentions. No one has ever made peace by not
The writer is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center
for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and a radio
host on All for Peace Radio.