Working outside the peace process

The peace process, at least for now, is over but unofficial negotiations are all set to go ahead next month.

FROM LEFT, former Palestinian Preventive Security Services head and Deputy-Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee Jibril Rajoub and Gilead Sher, a former negotiator who lead the Jewish state’s team at the Camp David talks in 2000 (photo credit: Courtesy)
FROM LEFT, former Palestinian Preventive Security Services head and Deputy-Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee Jibril Rajoub and Gilead Sher, a former negotiator who lead the Jewish state’s team at the Camp David talks in 2000
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The peace process, at least for now, is over. Fatah and Hamas announced a reconciliation agreement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Palestinian Authority Prime Mahmoud Abbas of colluding with a terrorist organization and negotiations were cut off. Hamas reiterated its commitment to the tactics of terror, and nobody thinks official negotiations will restart anytime soon.
Unofficial negotiations are all set to go ahead next month. Talks, to be conducted under the auspices of a new civil society project calling itself Peacehub, will be live-streamed online from June 16 to 20, bringing together academics, experts and prominent Israelis and Palestinians to try to hash out their differences in as public a forum as possible.
The brainchild of Eyal Sher, the director of the Jerusalem Foundation’s Art and Culture Department and the former deputy director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Peacehub extends to Sher’s brother Gilead, a former negotiator who lead the Jewish state’s team at the Camp David talks in 2000.
The idea for a live broadcast of unsanctioned peace negotiations came to the American-educated screenwriter after reading his brother’s book The Israeli- Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999- 2001: Within Reach.
Initially thinking that the book could be adapted for the screen, Eyal’s concept eventually morphed into what he now describes in his promotional material as an initiative “designed to present Israelis and Palestinians with the ins [and outs] of the official negotiation process and enrich the public discourse with expert information on the core issues of contention, agreed-upon solutions and the compromises yet to be made in order to reach a comprehensive framework agreement.”
According to Peacehub, “live streaming the talks online will allow the public the opportunity to watch high level, professional conflict resolution negotiations and partake in a process that to date has left us without a voice.”
While Eyal’s brother Gilead presents the Israeli side, the Palestinian Authority is to be represented by former Palestinian Preventive Security Services head and Deputy-Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee Jibril Rajoub.
Originally conceived during the second intifada when talks had broken down and “buses were exploding,” the idea was to “bring [the idea of talks] back to the public discourse.” After the Palestinians went to the United Nations in a bid for statehood outside the framework of bilateral negotiations, “we said okay, we have to do it.”
Now “the technology is such that don’t need a broadcaster anymore. [You can do it] on the Internet independently.
Not only you don’t need it, it might be the right way to do it in terms of the aim of it which was really crowd engagement,” Eyal told The Jerusalem Post Magazine this week.
“We plan on holding a marathon, week long negotiations between the Israeli team professional negotiators and Palestinian team of professional negotiators, and an international team of professional mediators. All people who have, in the past, been involved in one way or another,” he added.
The negotiations will be mediated by Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation chairman Prof. Robert H.
Mnookin, an expert on negotiations and conflict resolution.
The talks will be based, Eyal said, on previous negotiations and plans, including “the Geneva initiative, the Arab initiative and the Clinton understanding.”
In a way, it seems that the vision is a repeat of the Geneva Initiative, a project that grew out of the Geneva Accords, a document produced by a similar, though not webcast, unofficial negotiating session.
However, the aim of Peacehub, Eyal said, is not so much creating a new viable framework agreement as much as to “bring reliable expertise and information to the public, what the agreed solutions are, which ones are agreed upon and which ones still need to be agreed on.”
Calling the public understanding of the issues involved in the conflict a “pretty thin one,” Eyal said he wants less to “change an individual’s political stance as much as to enrich the public discourse by providing relevant information.”
“When people talk about the conflict they talk about the ‘do we divide Jerusalem or don’t we divide Jerusalem, do we give back territories or don’t give back territories and dismantle settlements,’ and that’s pretty much the end of the discussion,” he elaborated.
“Within the discussion people are pretty much set up in their political stances and it comes from sort of an emotional discussion, a political discussion and not an information-based discussion, so when we talk about dividing Jerusalem no one knows the details exactly.
Where do we divide if that’s the decision of our leaders? How do we divide, how do we govern a divided city that still remains open? What are some of the solutions for the holy sites? The idea is to access that information to the public.”
Both sides, Israeli and Arab, Eyal believes, are apathetic about the negotiations, which by their nature take place in a secretive manner.
This initiative is needed, he asserted, “because the general feeling is that when you don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors, which is the nature of negotiations to begin with, it leaves the public disengaged and not knowing, and the not knowing creates on the Israeli side an apathy, indifference and disbelief that there is any kind of hope for an agreement.”
“On the Palestinian side it leads ti strong sentiments of anti-normalcy,” he continued. It causes a “battle of the population against any relationship with Israelis because they don’t want any kind of relationship as long as they’re under occupation, and so the idea is to really highlight the visibility of an agreement and the fact that here are people who don’t necessarily agree with each other.”
There will definitely be distrust to overcome b e - fore much of the Israeli public is willing to believe in the talks, however. The recent Hamas-Fatah agreement has led many Israelis to doubt the intentions of their Arab neighbors and anti-Semitic statements by senior Fatah officials have led many to doubt they ever were serious.
A recent statement by PeaceHub’s Palestinian representative Rajoub, for instance, compared Israel to the Nazis, asserting that Hitler could have learned “about concentration camps, extermination camps” from the Jewish state.
According to a translation published on the website of Palestinian Media Watch, Rajoub told the official Palestinian Authority television earlier this year that “if Hamas wants to kidnap soldiers, let them kidnap soldiers.”
There will be a lot of distrust to overcome if Peacehub has a chance of changing the discourse, despite widespread Israeli support for a two state solution.
The Israelis and Palestinians probably agree on 50 percent of the issues and they can resolve the rest through discussion, Eyal believes.
“The idea is to focus a debate on the core issues, not on the internal and regional political interests that continually block us from advancing toward a fair and sustainable resolution. Those will always be there anyway, but beyond them, let the public also be informed of what is possible, and where are there still stumbling blocks that need to be discussed and resolved.”
“Nowadays we witness growing apathy among the civilian populations and increasing distrust of one another. Indeed, the recent breakdown of negotiations would suggest that negotiations are unlikely to bear fruit in the near future.
However, Peacehub suggests that despair is not a working plan and that eventually this intractable conflict will come to an end – throughout dialogue, transitional constructive steps, and creating hope for a better reality,” Gilead Sher said.
Most observers already know the general outlines that an agreement would have to follow, Eyal asserted. Peacehub’s vision is less about peace and “a vision of peace of flying kites over the separation wall and being friends, but rather the nuts and bolts of what an agreement would look like,” he said.
It is more about the “nuts and bolts” he said, “and about how an agreement would actually look on the ground, than about creating a Utopian future.
“We want to have the expert on water and the expert on demographics and refugees and the experts on security tell me what they think. We want to invite the top expert in each of the fields to tell us “do we need the strategic geographic depth of the Jordan Valley or are warning stations sufficient for the security of Israel? … We are not a bunch of leftists who have their eyes in the clouds.
We are very grounded folks, going at it knowing that the threats are real and the barriers are enormous. We don’t have the answers to many of these political, religious and cultural challenges.
Many of these experts will presumably be drawn from the Institute For National Security Studies, one of the organizations collaborating with Peacehub for the talks. Gilead is director of CAN, the INSS’s Center for Applied Negotiations.
Eyal is speaking with several local and international media outlets, among them Ynet,, LinkTV and others about carrying the highlights of the talks on their platforms.
Such a large undertaking will obviously cost quite a bit of money. In fact, Eyal said that the minimal budget is $650,000. He is now working to raise a critical sum of $200,000 for production and marketing through a combination of partnerships, private donations and crowd funding on
“Disregarding an eventual resumption of official negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, we would like to start establishing a common vision of peace,” Gilead said.
“I believe that it is essential to advance the notion of a two-states-for-two-peoples reality throughout constructive steps, such as intra-society and inter-society dialogues. The Peacehub project provides an opportunity to do so in a participatory process that ultimately accommodates people’s hearts and minds towards peace,” Gilead said.
“Even if we do not reach a consensual agreement in June, we would be somewhat contributing to reversing the trend to a binational state, which would be the end of Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people.
“Among supporters of a two-state solution there is wide consensus that a negotiated settlement is the best way of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peacehub does not venture to replace the official track, rather [to] initiate positive traction within both constituencies and deeper understanding of the two-state solution. It just might help build confidence between the two societies and ultimately increase the public support that the respective leaderships need in order to advance a long term agreement,” Gilead said.