Encountering Peace: Advice for the president

Mr. President, you are probably thinking, “where do these people get the chutzpah to tell me what I should do?”

cheeky obama 521 (photo credit: reuters)
cheeky obama 521
(photo credit: reuters)
Mr. President, you are probably thinking, “where do these people get the chutzpah to tell me what I should do?” Well, my answer is: the chutzpah comes from experience.
Seriously, I think that I can honestly claim to be responsible for conducting more Israeli-Palestinian negotiation meetings than any other person in the world. I have convened and facilitated over 1,500 “track II” meetings of Israelis and Palestinians, officials and non-officials over the past 25 years. I have spent more hours working on resolving this conflict than even Dennis Ross. I would like to offer some advice, and with all due respect, I think you should listen to what I have to say.
1. This conflict is resolvable – don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.
2. The parties have to want it more than you, this is true, but you have to help the parties to understand that resolving the conflict is possible.
3. The solutions to the conflict have to put the Israelis and the Palestinians in positions of direct responsibility for implementing their obligations.
There can be no Pax Americana, no imposed agreement, and no one can provide better security for Israel than Israel. No one can guarantee Palestinian interests better than Palestinians. All this being said, Israelis and Palestinians cannot do it without your active engagement and assistance.
4. Don’t waste time on the process, deal with the substance. Your last emissary, Senator George Mitchell, spent 90 percent of his time and effort trying to get the parties into the negotiating room and only 10% on substance. Reverse the order. Israelis and Palestinians do not have to sit in the same room to begin a negotiating process. President Carter understood that with Begin and Sadat. Those two leaders did not negotiate face-to-face. The American team took control of the process, authored the text and went from side to side with the text and after 26 drafts produced the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Accord.
Israelis and Palestinians will enter the room, gladly, once there is progress on substance. Begin with the substance, begin to draft the accord and get the parties to respond to each other through your work. This process also empowers you to put the necessary bridging proposals on the table through the text, and the parties will respond to them, first individually and later when they do enter the room, together.
5. The parties will try to foil the process by raising the “red herrings” – settlement freeze, Jewish state, etc.
Don’t engage them on this; give them assignments to propose solutions that could be acceptable to the other side. It is clear what they each want, make them propose solutions that the other party can live with.
6. Real negotiations cannot be conducted publicly.
The political constellations of both sides and the failure of the process until now make public peace diplomacy an impossibility. Nonetheless, it is necessary.
The public process needs to focus on trying to create an environment that will enable real negotiations and make them more likely to succeed.
But don’t waste too much time on the public process. The real effort must be made via a secret back channel. The best secret negotiations would be direct talks between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
This must be part of the process, but most likely, much of the work will be carried out by trusted individuals appointed by the leaders. It is essential that very few people on each side share the knowledge of the secret back channel – it is the only way it can succeed.
I have personal experience in this and I can assure you it is possible for it to be kept secret.
7. The basis for agreement on most of the issues will be found in formulas that present some elements of reciprocity. There must be a sense of “give and take,” not only “take and take.” The sides must be challenged to answer the question of what the other side gives in return.
8. Learn from the previous negotiations. The Abbas- Olmert talks made great progress and many solutions to the most difficult issues were proposed and accepted.
This is a good basis for progress. Be prepared with solutions to close the gaps but first allow the parties to propose their own solutions. In those past talks, surprisingly the most difficult issue was the delineation of the border, and not Jerusalem or refugees.
9. Learn from past mistakes (of which there were many). Here are a few: the text must be explicit and clear – there is no room for constructive ambiguity.
Implementation of the agreements must be incremental and performance-based, meaning that the parties must actually implement their obligations and commitments. Verification of implementation must be conducted by a reliable and trusted third party – meaning US professional personnel.
The verification reports must be public, unlike the past. No one even knows that there was a Road Map monitor because his reports (and he was a three-star US general) were secret. Our leaders must be accountable to their publics and that can only happen if the verification of the implementation of the agreements is made public.
10. Ongoing, real-time dispute resolution instruments must be included in the agreement and implemented so as to deal with disputes when and where they happen, at the lowest level possible.
I could easily provide dozens of additional recommendations.
This was meant to give you a taste of what is necessary and possible. I assume that your visit here now is also aimed at making an assessment on whether to spend your extremely valuable presidential assets on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no doubt that most of your predecessors would advise you to stay away – it is the deep, dark hole that swallows US presidents. You will probably assess that the parties lack a sense of urgency. You will hear a lot of advice to work on managing the conflict and not on resolving it. You will be tempted to spend time and energy thinking up confidence-building measures. That is what usually happens.
They don’t work, so don’t waste your time. There is a lack of confidence on both sides which is well earned.
Nothing artificial can change that. Checkpoints will be removed in the framework of implementation of agreements.
Prisoners will be released as part of an agreement.
Palestinians and Israelis will and must deal with incitement in the media and in textbooks as part of agreements reached. If there is real progress being made in the negotiations you won’t have to ask for confidence-building measures; the parties will undertake them themselves because they will understand doing so serves the interests of concluding a better agreement.
The parties will tell you how much they want peace and how much the other side continues to prove that they do not. You will hear it from both sides. You must listen and acknowledge what they are saying and you must determine that partnerships do not come naturally – they have to be created and nurtured.
There is a great urgency, even if they don’t admit it. There are partners for peace among the people on both sides – a majority on both sides. Every issue in conflict can be resolved. We need you to do it.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.