After more than a year without progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, the launching of proximity talks seems like a breakthrough. In the Middle East reality, however, such talks reflect a serious retreat. The taboo on face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the
Palestinians was  broken 19 years ago, with the Madrid summit. Now, after years of direct negotiations, we have “progressed” to proximity talks in which a mediator will be traveling back and forth between the two sides.

Nonetheless, there is a chance that this could turn out to be the preferred means for reaching an agreement. Israelis and Palestinians have always favored direct talks. Both sides have tended to believe they can represent their own interests best. There is also a question about who could serve as that third party – who, in other words, would best advance the cause of one side over the other?

When the question of a third-party mediator was raised the Palestinians believed that the US was not impartial. They contend that the US would almost always take the Israeli position and apply pressure on the Palestinians. This has certainly been the case until now. US pressure was applied only on the Palestinians to implement their road map commitments, while Israel has not implemented a single one of its commitments, even relatively simple ones like reopening the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce.

At Camp David in July 2000, Palestinians claim president Bill Clinton and his team served as advocates of the Israeli position, even carrying Israeli-authored texts to the Palestinians rather than serving as an impartial mediator. When I asked president George W. Bush’s deputy security adviser Elliott Abrams why, during the Annapolis talks between Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei, the US didn’t offer bridging proposals when the talks got stuck, he replied that
“bridging proposals is a euphemism for imposed solutions, and we will not impose any solution on our friend and ally Israel.”

Abrams knew exactly what he was saying.

THERE IS something quite interesting about the notion of proximity talks that perhaps has not been fully comprehended by the parties and possibility not even by the mediator. Proximity talks mean that George Mitchell is completely in charge of the process. The mediator carries
the message. The mediator can also shape and frame the message; the mediator drafts the text. In theory, this is actually very positive. Israelis and Palestinians often misunderstand each other. They speak in code and have a full range of sensitivities that escape the awareness and understanding of the other side. Often words and messages are misconstrued.

Two examples of such messages are the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, which was not intended to be a provocation against the Palestinians or against Muslims; it was a provocation against Ehud Barak. Similarly, the decision of this
Israeli government to include the Cave of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) and Rachel’s Tomb on a list of Jewish heritage sites has nothing to do with the Palestinians – it is all part of domestic Israeli politics.

In all the years of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, there has never been a strong, impartial mediator. Clinton could have done it at Camp David, but waited until the end of his term to pull out the bridging proposals.

President Jimmy Carter at Camp David I conducted proximity talks; Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat did not negotiate directly. In fact, it was clear to Carter that they did not like each other, and had serious problems understanding each other. Carter and his team, shuttling
between the two,drafted the Camp David agreement by creating multiple versions until reaching success.

In complex negotiations, this is referred to as “single-text drafting.” In classic negotiations, each side authors texts and then together try to bridge the gaps between their two (usually very different) proposals.

IN THE Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Israeli side has often drafted a text that the Palestinians respond to. In the current round of proximity talks, Mitchell and his team are likely to be the sole drafters of the texts, and this enables them to wield great power.

Mitchell’s team has some top experts with years of Middle East negotiation experience under their belt. The creativeness needed to broker a deal in Northern Ireland is only a fraction of what will be necessary here. Mitchell is entering the process knowing that the decision of the Arab League to  encourage the PLO to enter the talks has granted the Palestinians the flexibility needed to seek an agreement. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has much less leeway, with his current coalition placing significant restraints on him. Proximity talks conducted through a very small team on both sides enable the parties to negotiate without looking over their shoulders with every step.

Netanyahu must be aware that there will be no agreement unless he goes further than his predecessor. There can be no peace with the Palestinians unless Jerusalem becomes the capital of both states. Likewise, Mahmoud Abbas is fully aware that there will be no peace
with any significant return of refugees to Israel proper. So the parameters of peace are quite well known to both leaders, as well as to the mediator.

If the mediator knows to exploit the power granted to him by the parties, proximity talks may be able to produce significant results. If this is true, the goal of the talks should not be to enable face-to-face talks after four months, but rather to produce a full agreement for peace and an end of the conflict. The parties can meet face-to-face afterward to work out the details and sign the agreement.

The writer is co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, and an elected member of the leadership of the Israeli Green Movement political party.

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