The Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are shrouded with secrecy. Most of what has been written so far about what is transpiring behind the closed doors is not true.
There is a journalistic urge to report, matched with politicians’ needs to be quoted and publicised. Most senior politicians cannot easily admit that they don’t know what is being discussed, in what are probably the most important issues facing Israel and Palestine.
My advice to the readers is remember this: those who speak don’t know, and those who know are not speaking.
I have met negotiators from all sides (Israel, Palestine and the US). I have been told by all, two things prior to all my meetings: “We [meaning them] are in a listening mode only, and you cannot tell anyone that you met us.”
Within those very clear restraints, I will try to convey what I understand from my conversations and from the requests that I have received for information, ideas, proposals, and possible wording. I would venture to say that my assessments are as close to the truth as possible — without really knowing.
Even failure can help us stop repeating mistakes
The negotiations are very serious, they are not deadlocked and significant progress has been made. There are up to six people in the room — Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho on the Israeli side, Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Sthiyeh on the Palestinian side, Martin Indyk and Frank Lowenstein from the American side.
It was reported that Israel wants to focus on security issues and the Palestinians on the border issues. All of the issues are on the table — security, borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water, economic issues, education and incitement, recognition issues, and more. The issues are not being negotiated separately.
These very experienced negotiators are aware that if an agreement is reached it will be based on trade-offs on the various issues.
The parties thus far reject the idea of another interim agreement. They are working towards a comprehensive agreement, stating that it will bring us to the end of the conflict and the end of all claims.
Is it possible? That is an impossible question to answer. In terms of the issues, negotiations have taken place for so long, and enough creative ideas have been developed over the years, to say that from a technical perspective it is possible to resolve all of the issues in conflict.
The main difficulty remains the complete lack of trust between the parties, that if it existed could enable more confidence in the possibility of peace. While a clear majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, there is a large majority on both sides that believe that it is not possible.
We all enter this peace process with the clear knowledge that until now, for 20 years we have been working on it and have failed. Those failures can be the best tools for developing new approaches to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again. That is the wonderful thing about human intelligence.
Lastly, the parties do understand that the goal of the agreement must be to change the nature of relations between the parties. The goal is to reach the really hard work of making peace, which begins the day after the agreement is reached.
In order to get there, the parties must also take actions now to begin to erase the years of hatred, animosity and fear. Peace-building can begin while negotiations are taking place, and if it does, it will help the negotiators to reach a better agreement.
Gershon Baskin is co-chair of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information, and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Shalit. His new book about Shalit, The Negotiator, is published by Toby Press on November 5