Jul 30 2013

Signs of Seriousness In Israel-Palestine Peace Talks

Published by at 1:13 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics



By Daoud Kuttab

The dinner with US Secretary of State John Kerry on July 29 will be the first face-to-face meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials in more than three years. It is unclear what the agenda of the two days of meetings at the State Department will be, but it is clear that instead of the incremental process of the past, the talks will focus immediately on borders and security. The idea is that if these issues are settled, it will be easier to determine how to resolve the other final status issues — settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.

One of the unknown factors in these talks is the degree of seriousness each side is devoting to the peace process. A superficial review of public statements of the two sides’ leaders and cabinet members as well as pundits indicates a predominantly pessimistic outlook. But is that the reality?

Some would argue that the best way to gauge the seriousness of the parties is to focus on what the leaders are telling their own people. This barometer might not be a true measure for the simple reason that the parties have agreed to a certain level of secrecy about the talks. Both Israelis and Palestinians have promised their people that they will put any final agreement to a public referendum. In other words, don’t ask us for step by step details, wait for the results.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have taken steps to prepare their publics for the upcoming talks. Abbas met with 80 journalists and columnists for an off-the-record briefing. Before voting on the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners held since before the Oslo Accords, Netanyahu addressed the Israeli public in an open letter, telling them that “every now and then prime ministers need to take decisions that fly in the face of public opinion — for the good of the country.”

The local and international press will most likely be trying their hardest to extract from negotiators every detail on the status of the talks and any obstacles arising. Kerry has said that he convinced both leaders to keep quiet about the details and allow him to be the only authorized source of information on the talks. This is highly unlikely, at least as far as the Israeli press is concerned.

The power of the Israeli press appears to have been noted by none other than Abbas. In his meeting with journalists, Abbas told members of the Palestinian press to watch for good news in the Israeli press on July 29 in regard to the agreement on the release of all pre-Oslo prisoners. Similarly, and in abiding with the agreement with Kerry, the PLO representative in Washington declined to appear on CNN’s GPS that same day, but the Israeli ambassador did not see his appearance with Fareed Zakaria as a problem as far as the agreement to keep details under wraps was concerned.

In the past, one way to counter the possibility of harmful media leaks during negotiations has been to pursue a secret track. This is what happened in the post-Madrid peace conference period. While Palestinian and Israeli negotiators were meeting face to face in Washington in 1993, a secret track was under way in Oslo that ultimately led to the breakthrough between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

At present, no such second track appears to be in the works. That the Barack Obama administration and Israel have agreed to have a US official in every meeting between the Israelis and Palestinians is seen as strengthening the Palestinian position and reflecting the constant need for an honest broker in the talks. It is unlikely that Palestinians and Israelis alone in bilateral secret talks would accomplish more than in trilateral talks.

All the parties, of course, have their work cut out for them. The coming nine months to which both parties have committed will most certainly reveal whether they are serious about peace. In the meantime, the public will have little choice but to wait outside for the white smoke to appear.

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