Encountering Peace: Planning beyond the possible

The status quo is not sustainable, and leaders need to start going beyond what is presently thought to be possible.

Iron Dome battery 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Iron Dome battery 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In October 1992, a year before the Oslo agreement was signed, I initiated a series of “Track II” talks in London between a group of Israeli security experts and their Palestinian counterparts. The Palestinian delegation was composed mostly of PLO representatives, with whom it was illegal for Israelis to meet face-to-face at the time.
The Israeli group included General Shlomo Gazit, former head of military intelligence, Yossi Alpher, then acting head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a former Mossad person and several others. Yossi Ginosar, a former senior Shin Bet agent and advisor to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, was to have participated but was unable to do so due to illness.
The Israelis did not want the Palestinian delegation to consist only of Palestinians from abroad. I contacted Faisel Husseini and asked him to nominate someone. He responded that no one in the territories knew anything about security issues, which were all handled directly by the PLO. He said that there was someone who had just returned to the territories from completing a PhD in the United States, Dr. Khalil Shikaki “who studied something to do with strategic issues – try contacting him.”
Depite having never met him, I contacted Khalil, and asked him to join. He was the brother of Fathi Shikaki, the head of the Islamic Jihad, living in exile in Syria. Israel assassinated Fathi Shikaki in October 1995. Khalil agreed to participate on the condition that he received written assurances from Israel that he would be allowed to return to the territories following the meeting.
After making inquiries, the IDF informed me that they do not give such assurances in writing. I spoke to General Gazit, who decided to call Rabin. Gazit informed Rabin of the planned London meeting and about the problem involving Shikaki. Rabin phoned the military governor of Tulkarm, which is where Shikaki is from, and instructed him to issue the letter to Shikaki. Rabin asked Gazit to report back to him following the meeting so he could learn what the Palestinians had to say.
During the four days of talks in London, the subjects dealt with concerned security coordination, the size of the force the Palestinians required to take control of the territories, combating terrorism, prisoner releases, and types of weapons required. These were discussions which were unimaginable at that time. Who believed that Israelis and Palestinians could discuss security coordination?
But they did, and what’s more found a large number of things they could agree on. The Palestinian team was reporting directly back to Arafat in Tunis on almost an hourly basis. Years later, the late Motta Gur, then deputy defense minister, told me that what convinced Rabin to give the green light to the Oslo talks was the content of the agreements reached in the London talks.
The Oslo process, however, did not succeed, and the first breakdowns were in the security area. This is not the place to go into what went wrong – suffice it to say that mistakes were made, and that it is essential we learn from them. Unfortunately both we and the Palestinians have made some of the same mistakes more than once. Ideally we would make no mistakes, but when we err, least them at least be new mistakes.
The current escalation with Hamas is a case in point. Everyone in the media calls it “the current round,” a recognition of the fact that this episode will soon end, only to return in one way or another in a few months from now. That is the cycle.
I know that when it happens again I will spend hours on the phone and in sending text messages again back-and-forth between the Hamas and Israel and also Egypt in the attempts to get both sides to return to calm and allow for people on both sides of the border to live as normal a life as possible without the risk of being rocketed and killed.
It seems obvious that what is required are some long-term understandings that will guarantee, as much as possible, longer periods of calm. If both main parties, in this case Israel and Hamas, desire to keep the calm – which they do – it only seems natural that they get beyond the current cycle. Three or four days of violence erupting every two or three months, in which tens of Palestinians and Israelis are killed and/or wounded, much property damaged and more than two million people on both sides of the border live under the threat of each other’s rocket fire is simply crazy.
Since the August 2011 Sinai terrorist attack and following the completing of the Schalit prisoner exchange, I have been trying to advance long-term understandings between the parties. The ideas seem as preposterous now as did the idea of security coordination between Israel and the PLO back in September 1992.
The parties are understandably having a difficult time coming to terms with these ideas, but there is no other way, certainly no better way, of ensuring the security of both peoples. The insanity of continued rocket fire with no clear political purpose has to end. It is time to turn the page and begin to rethink the calculus of the present relationship between Israel and Gaza. The status quo is not sustainable, and leaders need to start going beyond what is presently thought to be possible.

The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, a radio host on All for Peace Radio and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.