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Secret talks underline bankruptcy of peace process

    The meeting in London recently between Israeli President Shimon Peres and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) speaks only to the weaknesses of what purports to be the current peace process-not the (nonexistent) strengths.

    That a secret meeting had to be held, in this case reportedly through the good offices of Israeli-British industrialist Poju Zabludowicz, between an Israeli leader and an Arab leader who know one another well and have met publicly many times in the past, reflects the current bankruptcy of the process. Indeed, that it was Peres and not Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who met with Abu Mazen and that Peres eventually ended up without a mandate from Netanyahu and had to break off the talks, tells us what was really going on here.

    Neither Netanyahu nor Abu Mazen is interested right now in a serious peace process dedicated to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both are weak and are constrained by ideology and internal politics to such an extent that agreement on "existential" issues like the right of return and the holy places is impossible, not to mention the issue of the 1967 lines. Peres, an eternal optimist, appears not to understand this reality, or at least not to acquiesce in it. Because of his prestige in Israel and internationally, neither Netanyahu nor Abu Mazen could reject his negotiating initiative outright. It was presumably Abu Mazen who sought the secrecy, since he has a far more critical constituency to deal with than Peres.

    Such secret "summits", of which several took place in the past on British soil, are generally useful only when the leaders involved have solid mandates to negotiate and move matters forward. Back in the 1980s, Peres was involved in a UK meeting with Jordan's King Hussein, hosted by Lord Mishcon, to discuss a breakthrough on the Palestinian issue. The meeting went well-even produced an agreement. The only trouble was that Peres, then foreign minister, did not have a mandate from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to make such a deal, and the agreement had to be scuttled.

    The secret summits should not be confused with "track II" or informal meetings between Arabs and Israelis at the level of scholars, journalists, retired security officials and the like. Track II get-togethers, often held in Europe, are not encumbered by issues of mandate and are not expected to produce anything other than better understanding on both sides. The Oslo meetings of 1992-3 offer a rather unique example of a productive track II exercise that ended up ushering in an agreement at leadership level.

    Yet even the Oslo accords appear increasingly dysfunctional and threatened. Abu Mazen's prospective appeal to the United Nations for recognition of a Palestinian state reflects precisely both sides' inability to move forward through bilateral negotiations, whether at the track II level or, as in the case of his abortive meetings with Peres, at the leadership level.

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