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?