Indirect failures

It has become clear that only secret negotiations with both sides talking directly to each other have enabled the parties to move from endless negotiations to practicable agreements.

By ELIE BENNETT
March 9, 2010 13:03
4 minute read.
Indirect failures

netanyahu abbas fighting 248 no 88. (photo credit: AP)

One would think that this week’s announcement of American mediated indirect ‘proximity’ talks between Israelis and Palestinians would be welcome news to supporters of a two-state solution in this small piece of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. After all, the last time that these two sides attempted to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in late 2008 under former prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni. With US Vice President Joe Biden in the region to launch the talks, and Senator George Mitchell committed to investing the same type of effort that lead to the much heralded 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, it would seem that the peace process is finally back on track.

Unfortunately, the relatively short history of peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab negotiating partners teaches us that this latest attempt at indirect talks is almost certainly doomed to failure. Over time it has become clear that only secret negotiations with both sides talking directly to each other have enabled the parties to cross the threshold from endless negotiations to practicable implemental agreements. When the indirect public route has been tried in the past, peace talks usually ended inconclusively, or worse – in violent confrontation.

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THESE TYPES of indirect talks are not new to the region. In the late 1970s it was secretary of state Henry Kissinger and his “shuttle diplomacy” between Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo. In more recent decades, the US continuously mediated throughout the mid-nineties into the next decade between the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Syrians. More recently, the Quartet put forth their 'Roadmap for Peace’ that was negotiated among the four outside partners and then presented to the Israelis and Palestinians for their separate approval. While a few of these attempts included direct negotiations between the two sides, most of the legwork preceding the well-publicized summits was done by American negotiators carrying messages back and forth.

When the Israeli and Arab negotiators actually did sit down with the other side, like they did at the Wye Plantation, Sheperdstown and Camp David, more often then not they each negotiated through the Americans rather than resolving the outstanding issues by talking directly to each other. Simultaneously, both parties continuously released leaks to the media about the unwillingness of the other side to truly reach an agreement.

Even the recently much-hailed talks in the waning days of the Kadima government led by Olmert and Livni, with Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei representing the Palestinians, ended inconclusively and without any formal agreement. These talks too were the result of the US-led Annapolis summit and included non-stop off the record statements to the media updating the public on every centimeter and every concession debated along the way.

So what does work? The two biggest breakthroughs in Middle East peace negotiations over the past forty five years were reached with the two sides negotiating in secret far from the public eye, and then presenting the broad outlines of an agreement as a fait accompli to the their respective publics.

It is often mistakenly assumed that the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty resulted from intense mediation by US President Jimmy Carter between Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin.

In fact, Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to Jerusalem, which is credited with jump-starting the peace talks, was preceded by secret negotiations in Morocco between then foreign minister Moshe Dayan and
Egyptian deputy prime minister Hassan Tuhami. It was during these clandestine talks that Israel and Egypt already agreed to the formula of a full peace in return for the Sinai Peninsula – long before the two sides were to hammer out the many important details at Camp David.

The picture most often associated with 1993 Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO is that of Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the South Lawn of the White House. Here too, however, most of the negotiations were conducted secretly in Oslo between Israeli academics (and then later with then deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin and foreign ministry director general Uri Savir) and PLO officials under the guise of academic seminars. In fact, the Americans were extremely surprised to learn that the negotiations they were mediating simultaneously in Washington – as a continuation to the Madrid Peace Conference they had sponsored – were nothing more than a sham, while the real progress was being made far away from the limelight.

Many Israeli and Palestinians are now wishing Senator George Mitchell well as he attempts to bridge the many gaps and bring both sides back to the negotiating table where they can hopefully resolve this conflict once and for all. Nevertheless, if a meaningful agreement is to be reached and implemented, we can only hope that somewhere in the world, secret emissaries of Netanyahu and Abbas are quietly meeting and hammering out the final details of their agreement ending this conflict and getting ready to release this historic document to the world.

The writer is a public affairs specialist based in Jerusalem.


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