Gilad Schalit and the peace process

Informal contacts led to Schalit deal. Our politicians should use same methods to forge political deal with the Palestinians.

Schalit tent 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Schalit tent 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In an era when there is little real optimism about the possibility of meaningful conflict resolution between Israel and the Palestinians, the negotiations between Israel and Hamas that led to the Gilad Schalit deal can be instructive for the future of the peace process.
Throughout Schalit’s captivity, my colleague and fellow columnist on the pages of this newspaper, Dr. Gershon Baskin, played an important role in facilitating contacts between Hamas and the Israeli authorities. Baskin, who for over 20 years has headed the Israel- Palestine Alternative Information Center, was able to use his informal contacts to bring together people who were unable to connect via official channels of government and diplomacy. Such informal contacts have been built up over numerous years of “Track II,” or unofficial, discussions and meetings between Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Europeans and Americans, at meetings, seminars and workshops that have taken place well away from the glare of the media.
Track II meetings provide an important base for networking between enemies and the gradual creation of a level of trust between individuals at an informal level that no amount of official negotiations could ever achieve. Numerous small-scale problems have been resolved through this form of informal, non-governmental networking, and it is questionable whether the prisoner exchange would ever have taken place without these initial contacts.
In the context of Israel-Palestinian peace making, it becomes even more important to ensure the continuation of Track II meetings and conversations. The exchange of ideas, the widening of the circle where people meet as individuals rather than as enemies is invaluable. Since the Oslo process began in the 1990s, such meetings have served as a testing ground for new ideas, receiving feedback to be passed on to the higher echelons. These forums have given both sides the ability to discern what is really possible at any given moment and, most importantly, to foster relationships between people who have the ability to influence their own decision makers back home.
Track II has cynically been criticized as being no more than a talking shop and part of a well oiled, well funded, well traveled “peace industry,” benefitting a relatively small group of diplomats, politicians (often sent at the behest of their political bosses) and academics. The discussions can be painfully repetitive at times because, after almost 20 years of such meetings, there is very little which has not been discussed on almost issues relating to the conflict. But the time and space which is made available, not just in the formal sessions but most importantly around dinner, coffee breaks and in the bar at evenings, brings together people – from both the civilian and the military sectors – who are able to listen, understand where the “other” is really coming from, and gain a much better insight into what the real “red lines” are that cannot be crossed. This may not always come out in the public declarations of each side, but it has become sufficiently rooted for personal acquaintances, such as the one leading up to the Schalit contacts, to be made.
More often than not, it is the civilian rather than the security and military participants who are best able to develop these contacts, since they do not look at every problem through the prism of a rifle, a tank, a border fence or a Molotov cocktail. Peace discussions are not simply about creating security. They are as much, if not more, about the creation of civil networks and links, bringing people together over the mundane issues of daily life which are common to all, and through which cross-national relationships are created beyond the enmity and hatred of violence and warfare. They do not attempt to justify or to apportion blame, nor do they attempt to change the political views of the other side. Instead, they identify the mutual problems which have to be resolved and which, given a readiness for mutual compromises on both sides, can be achieved. Compromises which are usually very hard to swallow, such as the prisoner exchange agreement. Such efforts do have a chance of success, if only because each side seeks a more positive future, not because they believe that their own historical narrative is incorrect.
Baskin’s organization, IPCRI, has been one of the foremost organizations which has strived, with joint Israeli and Palestinian CEOs (Hanna Siniora) at bringing groups together. Unlike almost all other Track II meetings, much of IPCRI’s work actually takes place within Israel-Palestine, despite the problems involved in finding “neutral” locations and in ensuring that all Palestinian participants are able to receive permits from the Israeli authorities (and not to have them rescinded at the last moment) allowing them, when necessary, to cross into Israel when the meetings take place.
The agreement sprang to the headlines last Thursday evening, when news got out that the Israeli cabinet had been called together for an emergency meeting to formally ratify it. In effect, the government was being asked to approve an agreement which had been signed and which was already a done deal. It is always easier to reject an agreement of this nature when it hasn’t already been signed. The difference between the two Camp David Agreements – with Egypt in 1979, and with the Palestinians in 1999 – was that the former was finalized by Carter, Begin and Sadat and only required retroactive authorization on the part of the Knesset, while the latter was no more than a series of negotiations which failed to materialize, among other reasons due to strong pressure on the domestic front not to give in to the demands of the other side. Had Barak returned from Camp David with a signed agreement, including the signatures of Clinton and Arafat, it is hard, almost impossible, to believe that either the Knesset or the public would have rejected it, regardless of how difficult some of the compromises may have been for certain sectors within the population.
We know what painful concessions have to be made for a peace agreement, just as we have known for a long time what painful concessions Israel would have to be paid for the release of Schalit. The price always appears too high to pay before the agreement has been finalized, and there will always be groups and lobbies who do their utmost to prevent an agreement from being reached. But once it is presented as a fait accompli, signed and sealed, there is no way that we would turn ourselves into a nation of “peace spoilers” or prevent the return of Schalit.
Some would argue that this is antidemocratic.
That it is a form of applied pressure which prevents a government from responding to those voices which are opposed to an agreement. But there is no other way of moving forward. When the opportunity presents itself, we have to grab it with both hands. The alternative is to reach situations like Camp David and Taba under Barak; to be as close to a peace agreement as Israel ever has been with the Palestinians, and to see it slip away. The resulting frustration at being so close, but so far, resulted in the second intifada, a return to violence and a retrogression which took us back to the pre-Oslo era and destroyed any small amount of mutual trust which may have been achieved during the difficult period from 1995- 2000.
There are times when democratically elected leaders have to be prepared to move ahead regardless, such as happened with Begin at Camp David, Rabin at Oslo, Sharon with the evacuation of Gaza and Netanyahu with the Schalit agreement. It’s ironic that three of the four leaders mentioned should all have been have all been identified with the Right and intransigent positions on the conflict, but each of them was able to take the bull by the horns and move ahead when the opportunity presented itself.
We welcome the return of Gilad Schalit and we pray that we will not be put into a situation of having to undertake further such agreements in the future. But there are wider lessons to be learned from the events of the past week, such as the importance of Track II negotiations or the significance of signing and completing the agreements before the formal ratification. Our leaders would do well to take note if they want to attempt to make progress in the cause of conflict resolution and peace.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of Geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.