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In Mideast Peace Talks, it's Time to Lower the Temperature

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will hold a second round of direct peace talks in Egypt next week. Already, reporters from all over the world are booking their hotel rooms and making travel arrangements. But if they're serious about making peace, this would be a good time for the leaders to lower their public profiles and start talking quietly.

In the past, nearly all significant progress in Mideast peace talks has been accomplished in private, without the media giving a running commentary on every little development. It's difficult to negotiate through a megaphone. In public appearances the leaders invariably feel bound to state maximalist positions and to cater to their respective constituencies.

That's what happened in the public talks that followed the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, which I covered for Reuters News Agency. The conference consisted of a series of bitter and bellicose speeches. It was followed by a long, and ultimately fruitless series of meetings in Washington. The parties briefed reporters every day, kept everyone in the loop, provided juicy quotes and good copy -- and nothing got done.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian officials opened a secret back-channel in Norway. The negotiators stayed in the same place, ate at the same table and eventually formed strong relationships based on mutual respect. Their talks led to the landmark Oslo Accords in 1993 under which Israel recognized the PLO for the first time and accepted the principle of a Palestinian state while the PLO gave up its longstanding goal of destroying Israel.

Obviously a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then -- many deadlines have been missed and much blood has been spilled. Both sides must overcome feelings of betrayal, bitterness and mutual suspicion. Despite that, we've arrived somehow at a new moment of opportunity. A sign of seriousness would be if the two leaders declared that all future meetings will be private and if they agreed to set up working groups of experts to tackle each of the outstanding issues, also in private.

As Netanyahu stated in his White House speech last week, "I did not come here to win an argument... (or) play a blame game where even the winners lose. I came here to achieve a peace that will bring benefits to all."

Now is the time to lower the temperature. Nothing will get done in a hothouse -- and much as it pains me as a journalist to say this, nothing will get done with the media breathing down the leaders' necks.

They have to decide whether they want to win an argument or forge a peace.

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