Take the Peace Process Public

By Joel Pollak

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
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As recently as 1990, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the South African struggle and the “troubles” in Northern Ireland were considered equally irresolvable. The end of the Cold War brought the softening of old antagonisms and inspired renewed efforts at peacemaking in all three cases. But while South Africa made the transition to democracy, and Northern Ireland stabilized somewhat, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians eventually collapsed into violence.

Why? Because unlike the negotiations in South Africa and Northern Ireland, the Oslo process never created shared, public negotiating institutions composed of representatives from the various parties on both sides.

In South Africa, the government and 18 other political parties came together in 1991 to form the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, or Codesa, in which they publicly formalized negotiations that had previously only taken place at the highest level. In Northern Ireland, the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was created in 1994 and the Northern Ireland Forum in 1996, until finally the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided for a 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast.

In many ways, these institutions were failures: The Codesa talks in South Africa collapsed, and the Belfast assembly continues to lurch from one crisis to the next.

But the public negotiating forums in South Africa and Northern Ireland helped the peace process achieve a kind of permanence. By including public representatives, they involved ordinary people in the negotiations in an indirect and sometimes direct way, giving the peace process a life beyond the formal institutions themselves.

Crucially, the public negotiating forums in South Africa and Northern Ireland excluded groups that refused to abandon violent methods. Boundaries were thus set around the kinds of actions that would be considered politically legitimate. That is partly why the repeated collapse of negotiations did not precipitate a return to armed struggle in either case.

The public negotiating institutions did not resolve the fundamental differences between the parties, nor did they solve many of the technical difficulties that arose. Back-channel diplomacy was still necessary to secure the final agreements.

But the public forums helped the peace process win the support and involvement of the vast majority of ordinary people on all sides, and therefore provided a political environment in which negotiated agreements could survive setbacks.

The architects of Oslo realized that cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians would have to continue even after a “permanent” settlement was reached, possibly in the form of a political confederation like that of the Benelux nations in Europe. The two societies are too entwined — socially, geographically and economically — to be totally separated.

But the creation of shared institutions was left to the end of the process instead of being taken up at the beginning. In retrospect, this was a grave error, given the inherent instability of both the Israeli and Palestinian political systems. Confrontation with the enemy has long been the only cohesive political force in both societies. When problems arose, Israeli and Palestinian doves had difficulty encouraging public support for the Oslo process and wasted energy sniping at each other.

If a public, multiparty dialogue had existed from the beginning, the moderates from both sides might have joined together in an alliance or coalition to support the peace process.

The American-sponsored “road map” aimed to give peace a second chance. But like the Oslo process, the peace plan failed to create public negotiating forums. As a result, peace has failed to filter down to the grassroots level. As the violence has continued, leaders on both sides have dug in their heels, and the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians who want to live in peace have been denied a voice.

Some hold out the hope that strong American leadership will push the process forward, but the Bush administration has failed to make that kind of commitment. In any case, a peace that is pushed onto Israelis and Palestinians by the United States or anyone else will be a brittle peace, one that is merely held in place by external powers, like the perforated calm enforced under the British Mandate.

The peace plan drafted recently by members of the Israeli opposition and senior Palestinian negotiators, the so-called Geneva accord, holds promise. But like so many of its predecessors, this new initiative was drafted without broad public involvement and lacks a local institutional base. By itself, it will be unable to overcome the grave political obstacles it faces.

The creation of public, institutionalized, multiparty dialogues, made up of representatives elected by the Israeli and Palestinian people, could play an important role in fostering peace alongside the road map and initiatives such as the Geneva accord. It is an approach that has worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Though it has been completely overlooked in the Middle East, it may well be the key to success.

Joel Pollak is a speechwriter and researcher for South African opposition leader Tony Leon.

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