Encountering Peace: Let’s not talk?

President Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad are the most determined Palestinian leaders against the use the violence in the Palestinian struggle.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Knesset 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Knesset 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Shortly before Binyamin Netanyahu began his first term of office as prime minister in 1996, the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to create an environmental experts’ committee to undertake the planning and implementation of much needed cooperation on environmental issues. Committee members from both sides were dedicated scientists and environmentalists and were anxious to advance projects that would protect the land, clean up polluted wadis, develop sewage treatment plants and much more. In the aftermath of the change of regimes in Israel, after the Rabin assassination and the failure of Shimon Peres to win the elections, the newly elected Netanyahu set out to freeze the peace process that he was not really committed to.
The immediate Palestinian response, like a knee-jerk reaction, was to freeze contact with Israelis at the official level. This was just fine with the Netanyahu government. The Oslo process had created some 26 joint committees crossing almost every avenue of government affairs. One by one, the joint committees ceased to function. Scheduling meetings became impossible as each side conveniently found good excuses not to meet.
One exception was the newly formed environment experts committee.
Together, the Israeli head of the committee, Dr. Shmuel Brenner, the associate deputy director-general of the Environment Ministry, and the Palestinian head, Dr. Mohammed Hmaidi, the director-general of the Palestinian Ministry of Environment, approached the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, with a request for our organization to facilitate “unofficial meetings of officials.” The officials could not meet officially, so with the environment in mind and the understanding that cooperation was essential, these two senior government employees found a way to “beat the system” in the interests of both parties, knowing that nothing good can be achieved by not talking.
Despite official decisions not to meet, unofficial contacts continued and mutually beneficial relationships developed that were in the interests of both sides.
I WAS reminded of these unofficial meetings this week as we are once again in the situation where Israeli and Palestinian officials will not talk to each other. With the exception of continued security cooperation at the field level, and perhaps some continued talk between those who have responsibility for day-to-day issues concerning commerce, Palestinian and Israeli officials have been instructed by their superiors not to meet.
Twice in the past week, we have experienced “scheduling problems” when trying to bring together a small group of Israeli and Palestinian officials for closed-room discussions on economic issues. Officials from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs were refused permission to attend a workshop on joint planning issues with Palestinian counterparts.
But they were in good company, because the Palestinian officials were also told not to participate by their superiors.
At the most senior levels, Palestinians have decided to refuse Israeli offers to resume negotiations. Their point of view is based on years of frustration of the failure of the peace talks as they witness on a daily basis parts of their homeland being developed under their watchful eyes as Israeli settlements. Palestinians had hoped that the international community, backed by the determined words of US President Barack Obama, would force Israel to stop settlement building. But this did not happen.
The Palestinians, having made the decision to go to the UN to bring the Palestinian issue back to the international community, now face the frustrating reality of failure with no chance of gaining membership in the UN at this time. The aim of going to the UN was to create a game changer – an act that would empower them and attempt to level the playing field to some extent. But Israel has maintained the stronger hand and with its influence and American support has managed to prevent Palestinian success in the international arena. With US funding to UNESCO now being cut, even the UN Secretary General is recommending the Palestinians drop their plans to achieve membership in additional UN bodies.
US aid to the Palestinians is now frozen and with no financial rescue coming from the Arab world, the Palestinians need to come up with a new plan. In essence, both sides do. The no-talks reality is not in the interest of either party. But before coming to the conclusion that talk they must, it seems we are still in for more tactical steps, perhaps threats that delay the inevitable and place some very dangerous possibilities in front of us.
The Palestinians are considering shutting down the Palestinian Authority. There is talk of immediate elections with Mahmoud Abbas stepping down. There is a possibility of financial collapse and with it the many achievements of state building and security consolidation going down the tubes.
Israeli actions influencing the US Congress to freeze support for the PA along with the illegal Israeli action of freezing the transfer of Palestinian funds collected by Israel, as part of the Oslo agreement, shake the very foundation of the Palestinian Authority and increase the risk of collapse and a return to violence.
President Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad are the most determined Palestinian leaders against the use the violence in the Palestinian struggle. It is futile and wrong to seek to punish them. Likewise it is also clear that the strategy of not returning to the table is equally futile and wrong. Even if the chances of reaching a comprehensive negotiated agreement at this time with this Israeli government seem close to nil, there is no longer a legitimate reason to reject talking.
Come to the table, make your case, in private and in public, convince the world and the Israeli public of your peaceful intentions. No one has ever made peace by not talking.
The writer is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and a radio host on All for Peace Radio.