May 14, 2012 Edition 15 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The decline of Palestinian-Israeli track II activities
Sadly, nothing left to talk about  - Yossi Alpher
Track II cannot easily exist in a political vacuum.

Informal talks still have a role  - Ghassan Khatib
The truth is that this conflict has been over-negotiated.

Boycotts and threats ultimately hurt the Palestinian cause  - Ron Pundak
Palestinians should know that Israeli peace organizations and activists are their natural allies.

Prisoners and the wounded, crossing borders  - Jamal Muqbel
It was an incredible experience for me--like venturing into a jungle.

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Sadly, nothing left to talk about
 Yossi Alpher
A few weeks ago, after much soul-searching, I reluctantly accepted an invitation to a meeting about the peace process with Palestinian colleagues, held under the auspices of a veteran third-party convener who is truly dedicated to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian understanding and reconciliation. I have been turning down such invitations regularly for several years now, ever since concluding that the meetings had become pointless and were not worth the price I would pay in pure frustration.

I accepted this invitation because I had in mind a very specific proposal that I have been nurturing for a partial settlement that would lie thoroughly "outside the box" of Oslo-type thinking of the past 15 years. Could I perhaps, given this opportunity, persuade my Israeli and Palestinian colleagues to adopt this new idea?

The discussion began well, with most of the participants endorsing the gist of the paper. Of course, as is usually the case, most of the Palestinians who were invited and confirmed their participation did not show up--some for very valid reasons involving Israeli obstacles to travel and others for no obvious reason. Then the doubts began: one Israeli no longer believed in a negotiated solution of any kind, at least at the current juncture; a Palestinian would like to sign on, but his official position in the Palestinian Authority would not permit it; another Israeli poured scorn on anything not "inside the box" of institutionalized Oslo-based negotiations, which he acknowledged had not taken place in earnest for several years. Someone else needed to add mention of his pet cause. The convener decided that partial solutions fell short of his requirement to foster genuine reconciliation, and asked to add two utopian paragraphs.

And so it went. I left the meeting early, clutching the few neutered sentences my colleagues had left intact. The discussion was a microcosm of all the reasons why Israeli-Palestinian track II or informal, non-binding discussions have virtually ground to a halt.

Perhaps the primary reason is the absence of a vibrant and viable "track I" official peace process. Track II cannot easily exist in a political vacuum: when there is no hope offered by the politicians and no current or anticipated topics of negotiation to focus on, it's hard for academics, journalists, and retired generals and diplomats from both sides to anchor their discussions in reality and aspire to make a contribution.

There was a time before the 1993 Oslo accords when there were no official negotiations and it was even illegal for Israelis to meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yet we did meet and hold productive talks. That was because, as a vanguard, we Israelis and Palestinians were actually helping formulate the agenda for a peace process. We did something courageous. Our respective political leaderships--in Israel, even those on the right--were hungry to read our reports. In this way, the Oslo and Geneva accords were produced, alongside creative breakthroughs like bitterlemons itself, which is a kind of virtual track II discussion that anyone interested can listen in on.

Today, in contrast, there is a distinct sense that everything that ever was or will be on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda has been talked to death in track II. Nearly 20 years after Oslo, where can we still innovate?

Now we are just tired of one another. Worse, a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians who for years agreed to talk about a two-state solution in track II settings are increasingly convinced that the game is over. Between settlement spread by Israel and Palestinian insistence on unacceptable demands regarding refugees and holy places, the end-of-conflict two-state solution is increasingly elusive. And since a one-state solution is a zero-sum game--either apartheid or an Arab state with an eventual Jewish minority--for most candidates on both sides it doesn't appear to constitute a suitable topic for track II talks.

One obvious direction that Israeli-Palestinian track II contacts should seek to move in, if they want to remain relevant, is for Israelis to sit down informally with Hamas. This could produce a new and interesting agenda that would restore track II to its proper place in the Israeli-Palestinian context: ahead of the curve of official contacts. Hamas participation could also pave the way for Israeli contacts with additional Islamists from the Arab world.

Plenty of qualified and courageous Israelis are ready. Who will step up from Hamas?-Published 14/5/2012 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Informal talks still have a role
 Ghassan Khatib
"Track II" or informal diplomacy played its most significant and constructive role in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations prior to the Oslo breakthrough when the Palestine Liberation Organization started direct negotiations with the Israeli government. The reason track II talks flourished at that time--the late eighties and early nineties--was that Israel was refusing to deal directly with the Palestinian leadership.

To fill the void, Palestinians and Israelis worked separately to push for a peace process. And because direct talks were not possible, many of these initiatives ended in a kind of second-tier diplomacy where non-official or semi-official Palestinians met with Israelis.

After the two sides agreed to direct negotiations, which started in 1991, there was much less need for track II diplomacy because the official leaderships of both sides were able and willing to meet and negotiate directly. As such, since the Oslo negotiations, track II diplomacy has been largely marginal and fluctuated in frequency and importance, depending on the political situation and the parties' relationship. Despite the recent attempts by Israel to portray Palestinians as being unwilling to negotiate, the truth is that this conflict has been over-negotiated, a problem aggravated by the fact that the situation on the ground forces the parties into multiple and simultaneous channels of negotiations, coordination and other forms of interaction over still-unresolved political questions.

The most prominent example of track II diplomacy after the Oslo agreements was what became known as the Geneva initiative, where non-officials or officials involved outside their official capacity convened in meetings with the objective of agreeing on key final status issues in order to demonstrate that these issues are solvable. In that exercise a great variety of politicians on both sides made breakthroughs in numerous outstanding issues of the conflict. However, the actual contribution of this exercise to the formal negotiations was very, very limited. Since the Geneva Accord, there has been no official progress that was influenced or inspired by track II conclusions.

One negative reality of track II exercises is that they have been in some cases exploited and misused by opportunists who sought either to carve out a place for themselves in the political arena or were trying to make money out of them. Many donor countries, having the best intentions of trying to encourage interaction between the two sides in order to help along the formal Palestinian-Israeli relationship, have over the last 20 years encouraged project ideas and made money available for joint projects that bring Palestinians and Israelis together to do a variety of things, including activities that could be called track II efforts. In some cases, this largesse was exploited by Palestinians and Israelis who just wanted to enjoy the fruits of this generosity but didn't necessarily intend to solve political differences. This has resulted in the gradual deterioration of such efforts.

The other and more important reason that this type of diplomacy is waning can be attributed to the fact that Israel's government, Knesset and public opinion have been drifting towards the right--so much so that those who might have championed joint initiatives and track II efforts feel discouraged and have become less engaged.

Given the current political reality, the fact that the Israeli government position and Israeli practices do not allow for the resumption of formal negotiations, track II talks can play two useful roles. The first is to prepare the ground for serious negotiations when the climate changes, particularly when the United States presidential election has run its course and Israeli society becomes interested in a serious peace process once again.

The second role is bringing about joint efforts that can help defend Palestinian rights that are being violated on a daily basis by Israel's occupation apparatus and Israeli settlers, who seem to be encouraged in confronting Palestinians by their government. While the chance of renewing the peace process is currently limited, a collapse of the status quo--the worst case scenario--is also possible if no efforts are made to maintain a baseline of gains. Track II diplomacy can play a role here and its players should include Palestinians, Israelis and members of the international community.-Published 14/5/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Boycotts and threats ultimately hurt the Palestinian cause
 Ron Pundak
A few days ago, hundreds of left-wing Israeli peace activists met to discuss the big issue: what to do? Should the focus be social or political? Is there a political solution? One state or two? And how to generate a center-left majority in the next elections? This time around, we looked at an additional topic: the influence of a peace process vacuum on the capacity to actually carry out activities involving interaction between Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Since 2000, people-to-people and cross-border dialogue activities and informal political meetings have suffered a series of fatal blows. Failure of the Camp David negotiations, escalation of violence by both sides in the territories, and the reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002 led each public to conclude that the other is not interested in reaching a genuine peace and to lose faith in the motives and aspirations of the other.

Ever since, each public's cognitive image of the other has only worsened as the two sides have become increasingly indifferent to one another. A near-total severance of the two populations has been generated by two developments: the fence/wall and regime of permits that prevent Palestinians from entering Israel on the one hand, and the military directive that prevents Israelis from entering areas under Palestinian control on the other. The inevitable outcome is an accelerated process of ignorance, disinterest and relegation of dialogue to those who prefer to denigrate one another and argue that "there is no partner."

Nevertheless, dozens of Israeli and Palestinian organizations have persisted in holding activities dedicated to advancing peace, dialogue and reconciliation--involving youth, economists, artists, journalists, sport, medical research, capacity building, humanitarian and political issues, demonstrations against the fence, and many other issues. Many of these organizations network under the umbrella of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, whose objective is to create synergy among them for the greater good.

Throughout the years, there were always some on the Palestinian side who opposed any dialogue whatsoever with the Israeli side. These are not necessarily parties who oppose a two-state solution; rather, they argue that the occupation must end before they can talk with the occupier. These parties began as a negligible minority, but since 2000, their voice is increasingly heard.

In recent years, particularly since official Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ran aground following the removal of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the return of Binyamin Netanyahu to the premiership, this "anti-normalization" line has succeeded in preventing many joint activities. More and more Palestinians are joining the boycott of such activities without distinguishing between Israelis who support legitimate Palestinian rights and those who actively or passively seek to prolong the occupation. In parallel, some doubtful Palestinian actors are exploiting this reality for personal political ends, based on the assumption that extremism attracts supporters and anti-Israelism means popularity.

The outcome is dangerous. Palestinians are, to fall back on a familiar cliche, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If the intention is to demonstrate to Israelis that Palestinians are justifiably fed up with the ongoing situation, this can only fail: the broad Israeli public is totally uninterested in a Palestinian initiative that essentially hurts only those activities that are fostered by the Israeli peace camp. Indeed, if Palestinians want to signal their anger and frustration to the Israeli public, the best way is actually to expand the dialogue in order to present their views and persuade Israelis to act democratically against their government's policies.

Lately, this phenomenon has taken a turn for the worse. Not only have Palestinians "crashed" joint meetings and threatened both participants and the owners of Jerusalem hotels where meetings were planned, but they have attacked Palestinian journalists who have ties to Israeli counterparts. One of these Palestinian journalists responded by asking how anyone can expect to see creative solutions to ending the occupation and the conflict if there is no free communication between the two sides.

Some Palestinians argue that joint activities such as those directed against the occupation are legitimate, whereas joint activities like sports and art are not. This takes me back to that recent meeting of the Israeli left, during which a leader of one of the more prominent Israeli organizations that work intensively on ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state related that his interest in the issue began years ago when, as a youth, he was involved in a meeting of Israelis and Palestinians who played classical music together.

Palestinian civil society must learn to distinguish between the Israeli governmental system that distances us from peace and Israeli civil society that is the vehicle for change. Palestinians should know that Israeli peace organizations and activists are their natural allies and that, despite their painful frustration, by exercising influence over the Israeli public they can hasten peace and the establishment of a state.

In the course of the past 20 years, the Israeli public has altered its views radically, to the extent of recognizing the need to end the occupation and achieve a solution based on two states and two capitals in Jerusalem. Much of this change can be traced to dialogue and cooperation activities. Severing contacts, threatening and boycotting will ultimately only boomerang against the Palestinian public.-Published 14/5/2012 ©

Ron Pundak is chairman of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum.

Prisoners and the wounded, crossing borders
 Jamal Muqbel
About four years ago, a friend of mine told me about a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians near the Dead Sea. I really did not want to get involved at all, but my friend said to me, "Just come with me and you do not have to talk or participate."

I consulted my wife. She also rejected the idea out of hand. "How can you meet with the Israelis and still be the nationalist you are?" she said. "This is not right for you!" But I convinced her I was going only out of curiosity.

The meeting was held in March 2008. It was brief, and a chance to share personal stories between the participants. I remember that my 11-year-old son Yazen asked me, "Baba, were you with the Jews that imprisoned you long ago? Are these the same Jews that shot you in the head?" I told him, "Yes."

He then asked, "Aren't you afraid to sit with them? Were they carrying weapons?" First, I should explain that we have often welcomed internationals into our home and it makes no difference to us what religion they are. But he meant something else. He was asking if these were our occupiers. Frankly, it was difficult and moving for me to answer my son. I tried to answer diplomatically, but he was not convinced.

After that I decided to attend another event, a two-week dialogue in Bosnia. In my heart I could not shake the feeling that I was dealing with the enemy of the Palestinian people. The whole time I felt remorse. It was an incredible experience for me--like venturing into a jungle when I did not know the path and its destination. When I returned from Bosnia and talked about the activity, I was surprised to find how extensively the very act of meeting with Israelis met with objections. I found that I was being "boycotted" and, as a result, I lost many social relationships and clients. Just last week, there was another slap in the face when I lost the chance to be considered as a representative of the Beit Umar municipal council. My nomination was rejected because of my relationship with Israelis.

I have tried many times to convince those around me of the usefulness of dialogue with the enemy and the importance of listening to the other. I also decided that I would open the door of my home to Israelis and Palestinians, members of the group, and invite them here. I wanted them to see how we live and how my children and wife feel, living here next to an Israeli settlement and experiencing the clashes that go on here.

We discussed many topics of interest to both sides. For example, I visited the city of Sderot in the south, which sometimes comes under rocket fire from Gaza. I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Frankly, I did so, not so much out of sympathy, but to really understand the issues and what is going on, because, at the same time, I was having difficulty convincing the Israelis in the group the truth about what Israel's occupation soldiers and the settlers are doing in the West Bank.

In the group, we were constantly at odds. It took us three years of meetings just to agree on a general memorandum of understanding. I was engaged and optimistic and I was ready to lose more than I already had in order to plant successful ideas and expand the group and then pass our ideas on to every home through the media and by visiting schools and other places. I also was encouraged that we managed to create a film about our group and its meetings. Still, after all this effort and exhaustion, we have not been able to agree with each other on very basic ideas. I feel that, unfortunately, the Israelis in the group do not see the reality that exists before their very eyes and are not coming to the table with their hearts open.

In the meantime, I am told constantly that these meetings promote normalization. I have been asked by many people, "What have you done for peace? Have you stopped the construction of settlements? Are you knocking down checkpoints? Has the group expanded? Are governments listening to you and supporting you?" And, more than once, I have been asked, "Does the Israeli side recognize an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem?" I can only say, "No."

Over time, I have come to feel that the Israeli peace activists in the group are engaged in meetings and want to learn to know Palestinians and are willing to attend conferences and travel together and play and have fun and be entertained, to smile and embrace. But when it comes down to our political relationship and discussions of the core issues at hand-- refugees, borders, etc.--I sense that they conceal themselves. They flee from the hard issues. (Some members of the group still haven't accepted that there is an occupation in the West Bank.)

Ultimately, how can we succeed as long as the formal negotiations have been stalled--after the Madrid conference and Oslo accords and the yet-incessant deterioration of our lives? Anyone who sees the wall and the settlements and the checkpoints and military crossing points would say it is impossible that a solution satisfactory to Palestinians is in the offing.-Published 14/5/2012

Jamal Muqbel is a resident of the village of Beit Umar in the Hebron area and a member of the group Wounded Crossing Borders.