According to most observers, the talks in Washington last week between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas went off as well or better than many had expected. First meetings usually have very low expectations. In fact, they usually have as their primary goal to guarantee a second meeting. This was achieved with an agreement on both sides to meet again in two weeks.
The external dynamics as well as the public statements and press releases suggested that the atmospherics were quite pleasant. The hard bargaining still lies ahead, but there is one underlying operating assumption in these talks that appeared to break with traditional, serious Middle East negotiations. Hard as it may be to believe, the problem was the role played by the United States.
President Barack Obama has invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and political prestige in the Middle East, not the least of which is in trying to move Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward. While Iraq, Iran, and Turkey are among the key elements in his regional foreign policy agenda, he appears sincerely committed to bringing his personal power and prestige to the table to try to bring a lasting peace to Israel and the Palestinians. The problem is that throughout the history of Israel’s conflicts with her neighbors, the U.S. and superpowers largely have played roles at the edges and symbolically. The actual discussions and negotiations were best accomplished when the parties met privately — frequently even secretly and outside the public eye.
The negotiations between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David, and the subsequent White House signing ratified by Jimmy Carter, occurred because the entire prelude had been quietly arranged and set up behind the scenes. According to most versions of the story, Sadat decided to go to Jerusalem because Begin privately had informed Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu that he was prepared to invite Sadat publicly if Ceausescu could ascertain that Sadat would accept such an invitation. At the time, Romania was the only Soviet bloc country with relations with both countries. The Camp David Accords were the eventual result.
Similar secret meetings occurred on and off for years between Jordan’s King Hussein and a number of very high Israel political figures. Although they were generally unproductive, they did create a positive relationship between Israel and Jordan.
The entire 1993 Oslo peace process worked through stealth and under the public radar. An Israeli academic (joined by a senior Foreign Ministry representative) and Palestinian representative, together with a quiet Norwegian facilitator, arranged a venue and created an environment for the conversations to evolve. Regardless of what one may think today about the Oslo Agreements, they did move the peace process ahead.
While then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was the key negotiator after the Yom Kippur War, his role was primarily to achieve a cease-fire and not a peace treaty. Neither Kissinger nor his successors, including William Rodgers and James Baker, were able to achieve a breakthrough between the parties through the sheer force and persuasion of the United States.
The task before the Israelis and the Palestinians is to develop trust of each other. They need to talk in private and without leaks, analyses, or tea leaf readers. If anything approaching a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is to be achieved, the president and his team need to back off. They have brought the parties together and laid out the framework and process. A peace agreement before next Rosh Hashana will only be achieved if both sides can find their way there together — alone. To live in peace, both sides need to get there on their own, without depending on someone else to do their bidding or hold their hands. External forces, despite the best of intentions, cannot facilitate the hard, private bargaining.