Direct talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders are the most obvious way to achieve peace in the Middle East conflict. But history has shown time and again that a high-profile peace process alone is no recipe for success.
The Arab League is set to meet later this month to advise the Palestinian leadership whether or not to engage in direct talks with Israel. Palestinian officials say that there is no use in holding direct talks that are nothing more than a photo opportunity intended to create the impression of a peace process while avoiding any substantive commitments.
For Palestinians, the first step in real peace talks must include some accord on the basic issues of borders and security. The Palestinians have presented to their Israeli counterparts (through the Americans) a written offer that includes giving up lands occupied by Israel in 1967 and now populated by Israeli settlers. These lands would be swapped for other lands equal in size and importance. Israel has yet to produce a single written document outlining its position on the territory that will become a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Israel insists that any serious progress will happen only if both sides can sit at the negotiating table face to face. According to this view, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition might be persuaded to accept the continuation of the partial settlement freeze, but only if the Israeli public sees President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu publicly engaged in negotiations. But the history of such negotiations tells a much different story.
All successful efforts in the Middle East conflict have not occurred in front of cameras and through publicly declared direct talks. The visit to Jerusalem of Egypt's then-President Anwar el-Sadat, and the ensuing Egypt-Israel breakthrough at Camp David, took place only after successful behind-the-scenes understandings. The public Madrid talks failed to bring about any breakthroughs, whereas the much more secretive Oslo channel brought about the PLO-Israel agreement. Even some of the most explosive situations on the ground between Israel and its northern neighbors have been defused as a result of understandings that often included neutral third parties.
Former United States senator George Mitchell represents a relatively neutral third party supervising the current talks. These "proximity talks" allow Mitchell to ensure that each side is making serious offers. If the proximity talks are replaced with direct talks in which the US is not physically inside the negotiating room, there is no guarantee that the stronger partner will not try to bully the weaker one.
Direct talks also have some well-known liabilities. Failed direct talks have often led to a spike in violence. Neither side, nor the rest of the world, wants that.
When former US president Bill Clinton tried to set up the second Camp David summit, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hesitated. He felt that the situation was not right for direct talks. What worried Arafat was the possibility of failure and the potential of a blame game if the talks didn't produce the desired goal.
Clinton, who was embroiled in domestic problems, badly needed an international success, and assured Arafat that fingers would not be pointed at either party if the talks failed. But no sooner had the parties left Washington after the talks broke down than Clinton joined Israel's then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in blaming the Palestinians.
That failure, and the emotional responses from both sides as to what was or was not offered in the talks, helped spark the violence which led to the second intifada in the winter of 2000. To his credit, Clinton and his staff decided, despite the violence, to make one last attempt in Taba, Egypt late in his presidency. That effort is said to have been the closest the two parties have ever been to a breakthrough.
It would be helpful if the Taba understanding or the more recent efforts by Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could become the basis for direct talks. The Netanyahu government has refused to agree to any such clear reference point before talks begin. The Israelis want talks without conditions, even though Netanyahu has imposed his own condition on the Palestinians: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state that does not include Jerusalem and the Jordan valley.
Every expert on the Middle East agrees that the best avenue to a serious breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations. The biggest stumbling block for any successful conclusion is the public on both sides, so the more the public is kept out of the day-to-day talks, the better.
Of course, the public can and should be included through a national referendum in assessing the results once the talks have reached fruition and a comprehensive settlement is reached that both leaders say they can live with. But, until that happy day arrives, or at least until the two sides have reached the contours of an agreement, direct talks and photo opportunities should be considered counter-productive. After all, Palestinians and Israelis are no longer interested in the peace process. They just want peace.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.