Israelis and Hamas have secret talks in Switzerland

By Keren David, August 20, 2009

A secret “peace conference” held in Switzerland earlier this month brought together senior establishment figures from Hamas, Fatah and Israel to discuss a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

The meeting was organised by London-based group the Next Century Foundation, which describes itself as a “second track” diplomatic foundation working towards conflict resolution. Its first objective is to provide a forum for Israelis and Palestinians.

“It was the first time I’d seen Hamas talk directly to Israelis,” said William Morris, NCF’s secretary-general, “and the first time they had discussed a two-state solution.

“A lot of Israelis might say ‘so what’, but I think you need to take a longer vision and recognise that this is the way that the Palestinian public is moving in areas like Gaza, even though they have every reason to be radicalised.”

He hailed an “eagerness for dialogue, even among the most radical… I found it very refreshing to hear Hamas being more flexible about accepting a two-state solution”.

It was the first time I’d seen Hamas talk directly to Israelis

William Morris

A report of the talks has been sent to all foreign ministers in the region.

As well as Israelis, Hamas and Fatah, senior figures and diplomats from Arab nations attended the conference.
Britons present included Anna Ford, the former newsreader; journalist Dame Ann Leslie; and June Jacobs, peace activist and former president of the International Council of Jewish Women. Israeli participants included Gilead Sher, Israel’s chief co-negotiator in 1999-2000 at Camp David and the Taba talks; and Efraim Sneh, former Labour MK and founder of the new Yisrael Hazaka party.

The conference reached a consensus on the Arab peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, which trades recognition of Israel for withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Mr Morris stressed that the Israelis present saw the initiative only as a basis for talks, but said there was agreement on the need to persuade the Israeli public that the initiative was an opportunity, not a threat. One idea put forward was a campaign in Israel to soften public opinion towards the Arab initiative.

According to Mr Morris, however, the most important breakthrough was establishing dialogue between all sides in the Middle East. “The absence of dialogue creates a climate in which extremism is fostered,” he said. “To fail to talk to your enemies is very, very, disempowering.”

The three-day conference was held in Switzerland because many of the participants would not have been allowed to enter a EU nation. Those attending from Gaza had to leave home up to a month beforehand and wait in Egypt to be allowed to travel onwards.

Retired American diplomat Mark Hamley, a former US ambassador to Lebanon and Qatar, said: “The conference represented all parties involved in the issue. It was strictly off the record — that’s what made it possible. The fact that these people were discussing substantive issues was positive in itself.”

Last updated: 4:23pm, August 20 2009