Analysis: The private peace industry

Eight months ago, I was invited to a private dinner at a fancy Jerusalem restaurant. Around the table were seated two Israeli colleagues, three veteran British reporters, a mid-level Foreign Ministry official and a Lebanese broadcaster who lives in New York. Our hosts were two ambassadors - at least that's what their business cards said. Perhaps naively, I asked which country they represented, only to be told that they were the ambassadors of an international foundation dedicated to bringing peace to the Middle East. Over three courses and various bottles of wine, we heard anecdotes about one of the neighboring vice president's Jewish origins, optimistic predictions regarding the intentions of the Hamas government, tantalizing details of an impending agreement with the Saudis, and wistful remarks on the chances of a treaty with the Syrians. They had just arrived from Ramallah, and were going on to Amman, then Cairo; perhaps then to Damascus, but you never know with the Syrians. They were still hoping to meet MK Ephraim Sneh before leaving Israel. None of us learnt anything that we could actually use in a news piece, but at least the steak was good. At any given moment, self-appointed amateur negotiators such as these are shuttling between the region's capitals. Retired diplomats, connected businessmen, distant relatives of ministers, well-meaning academics and assorted charlatans are all busy creating an impression of serious dealings going on through back corridors. Nothing is impossible for them. Israel and Hizbullah might be at each other's throats but they are convinced that no bridge is too far. They're always available to journalists and will tell you, off the record of course, how doors open before them in every ministry and palace, and that if only Israeli governments - yes, we're almost always the ones to blame - weren't so intransigent, they could have brought peace in our time long ago. Why do they do it? Because it makes them feel important, like major players. Some of them actually believe in what they're doing, and of course they make a good living, flying first class, sleeping in five star suites and being paid handsomely, usually by some EU-funded NGO or a philanthropic foundation. They all have their local Israeli contacts, some former ambassador or veteran Labor Party politician, and their regular meetings with them whenever they're here gives them the illusion they are actually negotiating with tacit Israeli approval. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, though the Israeli contacts usually pass on a full report to the Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister's Office. If anyone ever tries to confront them with the futility of their mission, they always point to the Oslo Accords, that elusive holy grail of the peacemongers, and remind you that the initial agreements between Israel and the PLO were reached by a couple of academics acting on their own. That's only half the truth; Ron Pundak and Yair Hirshfeld might not have been official Israeli diplomats, but they were directed by then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin with the quiet approval of his boss Shimon Peres. It was 10 levels higher than any of the trial balloons and make-believe treaties that we've been seeing over the last few days. On Monday, Ma'ariv published the brainchild of Prof. Uzi Arad, a complex three-way territory swap that would allow Israel to hold on to part of the Golan Heights. Arad claims he's received encouraging comments from some unnamed Syrians. It still doesn't amount to anything more than an academic exercise. Tuesday's main headline in Haaretz about an actual agreement reached between former senior Israeli diplomat Alon Liel and a bunch of go-betweens no one's ever heard of adds up to even less. Even if the Prime Minister's Office was aware of the talks, and Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon's former aides are strenuously denying this, it still doesn't mean that peace with Syria is near, or could have been near if Israel, of course, hadn't backed out. A prime minister's awareness, or even his quiet blessing are worthless as long as he can easily deny any involvement. And if, is as usually the case, the political circumstances and public atmosphere are not favorable, deny it he will. But don't pity the poor peacemakers toiling away earnestly and without receiving any credit for their hard work; they can look forward to a secure and lucrative future in their chosen profession.