Critical Currents: Open the negotiations

If the current discussions between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas are to bear fruit, they must become transparent

0709-chazan (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Preparations for the November peace conference in Washington are in full swing. An impressive parade of high-level visitors is descending on the region to urge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to accelerate efforts to reach substantive understandings in advance of the meeting. The number of bilateral contacts is increasing daily: Many are busily engaged in what is nothing short of preliminary negotiations. Until the past few days, however, these activities were shrouded in a thick cloud of secrecy. They attracted next to no media attention, and evoked scarcely any domestic political debate. Yet if the current discussions are to bear fruit, they must become transparent. An open process, past experience demonstrates, has a far greater chance of success than one conducted far from the public eye. The norm of clandestine diplomacy which accompanied previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is no longer apt today. This practice, which was perhaps essential in the early stages when sensitive topics were broached for the first time, becomes a liability when the major issues are well known and their implications clear. Practically, prolonged discussions behind closed doors generate a gap - sometimes unbridgeable - between decision makers and their constituencies. Inevitably, this style unleashes rumors, distortions and misconceptions that are difficult to dispel. It also yields surprises which then create an uncontainable backlash. The lack of adequate public preparation was one of the root causes of the failure of the Oslo process. It would be foolish to repeat this mistake. SUBSTANTIVELY, it is important to foster broad debate on the details of permanent settlement issues now on the agenda. Such discussion provides an opportunity for airing differences and identifying core similarities, thus enabling the formulation of informed positions. It also provides a vital mechanism for drawing wide segments of the population - currently tired and disenchanted - into the process. Indeed, a candid debate may yet yield some fresh, creative ideas which may assist in tackling the most contentious and delicate questions requiring attention at this point. Conceptually, therefore, the confinement of negotiations to a small, elite group is extraordinarily problematic. It forgoes the benefits of consultation and transparency inherent in a genuinely public process. More to the point, it exacts an unaffordable representational price. The introduction of a more comprehensive and inclusive mechanism may be the key not only to achieving real progress on the negotiation front, but also to substantially stabilizing the shaky governmental arena. The incorporation of representatives of key sectors in civil society is the best way of allaying uncertainties, channeling constructive inputs and consolidating a firm support base. It is also, at least from a gender perspective, a legal imperative. Two years ago an amendment to the Equal Rights for Women Law provided for "adequate representation of women from diverse groups in the population" in all public commissions and official teams. This legislation placed Israel at the forefront of countries committed to the effective implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for greater involvement of women in peace making and peace building. Fulfilling both the spirit and the letter of this enlightened law will assure a fully transparent process and an infinitely more workable outcome. At the moment, there are just too many questions regarding the mechanisms, personae and contents of current talks. Virtually nothing is known about the division of labor among the various bodies involved. The prime minister's point people are Yoram Turbovitz and Shalom Turgeman. Nobody seems to know who exactly is working with them, and how they interact with the separate teams surrounding Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Deputy Premier Haim Ramon (responsible for the diplomatic process) and other ministers engaged in one way or another in direct contacts with their Palestinian counterparts. The role of possible institutional partners is equally unclear. The Planning Branch of the IDF is involved. So, too, are the National Security Council and the Research and Policy Unit of the Foreign Ministry. To what extent is anybody's guess. To date, in fact, it seems that the detailed preparatory work has yet to be allocated and the specific thematic consultative teams are still to be formed. The locus of decision-making remains blurred. Since the institutional framework for negotiations has not been determined, it is hardly surprising that there is no concrete knowledge about the identity of the people staffing the ad hoc teams. Their areas of expertise, qualifications and experience have not been subjected to public scrutiny, nor is there any indication of the extent to which they meet gender and diversity requirements. THE GREATEST unknown lies in the substantive sphere. Many talks are taking place, especially on the contents of a proposed document of principles to be presented at the November meeting. Little information has been divulged either on the parameters of these discussions or on their details. Some authoritative presentation must be released now to stem fears, encourage constructive debate and rally popular backing. The current negotiations are too important to be left to a handful of negotiators and a small coterie of their appointees. Since the public will monitor the process more closely in any event, it is healthier, more productive and ultimately more effective to keep it closely informed and intimately involved in all its various aspects at each and every stage.