Israelis and Palestinians have been conducting informal talks about resolving their conflict for several decades now. The first such contacts between Israeli intellectuals and Palestine Liberation Organization stalwarts took place some 30 years ago. These meetings picked up steam in the late 1980s, after the PLO officially accepted the principle of a two-state solution.
Since then, I have been involved in a number of such efforts. I organized some meetings, such as those between Fatah leaders and West Bank settler leaders in 1995, and participated in many others. Now, however, informal Israeli-Palestinian meetings, commonly known as “Track II,” are in danger of becoming pathetic and pointless.
The term “Track II” was coined by Joe Montville, an American political scientist, several decades ago to denote meetings of a political nature between representatives of two conflicting sides at the informal and non-binding level. The participants of Track II meetings are usually academics, journalists and retired diplomats and security officials. Occasionally politicians and officials from both sides participate, but unofficially.
Sometimes, as in the Oslo talks in 1992-1993, what begins as Track II ends up as Track I and becomes official diplomacy. Sometimes Track II meetings produce non-binding but potentially helpful proposals, for example on Palestinian-Israeli economic issues. I can testify that Track II meetings were very useful during the pre-Oslo and early post-Oslo years, and certainly contributed to advancing the process.
Israelis and Palestinians have become virtual champions at Track II: In terms of comprehensiveness and volume of meetings, they get together far more than other conflicted peoples like Indians and Pakistanis or Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Yet those other conflicted peoples seem to have made more progress lately at solving their problems than have Israelis and Palestinians.
So Track II does not always work, and some conflicts can be solved or at least mitigated without it, relying primarily on official contacts and negotiations. On the other hand, Track II generally is not harmful, and usually enables the two sides to know one another better and enrich their knowledge and understanding.
But lately it can be a waste of time and, worse, of self-respect. I began to be skeptical of Israeli-Palestinian Track II meetings after the peace process collapsed at Camp David in July 2000 and the violence began in earnest. I would sit down with Palestinian colleagues — all of us ostensibly committed to rescuing a two-state solution — in a hotel or think tank meeting room in Rome or Amman, and offer my analysis of what had gone wrong, freely pointing to what I considered to be the mistakes made by both Israel and the Palestinians.
The latter’s response was to affirm Israel’s mistakes, deny any of their own and claim that absolute right and justice were on their side. We were at war, and my Palestinian colleagues, who had nearly always needed some sort of official sanction from the PLO leadership to attend these meetings, were now loyally toeing the patriotic line. I finally walked out and refused for a while to come to more meetings.
The tone and content of Israeli-Palestinian Track II meetings appeared to improve for a while around 2004-2005. The fighting died down, the Palestinian side appeared to have done some soul-searching of its own, and new ideas like the Road Map and disengagement provided a basis for intelligent give and take, even as Israel moved into an increasingly unilateral mode.
Then, a few months ago, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections. Since then I’ve become allergic to Track II meetings. They tend to be despairingly unproductive, for two reasons.
First, the organizers, usually well-meaning Europeans or Americans but sometimes left-leaning Israelis or Palestinians, want to talk about returning to a peace process. They approach the issues as if Hamas had never replaced Fatah in power; as if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had the standing and authority to negotiate on behalf of a unified political entity; as if Abbas’s positions on the key issues, like the “right of return” of the 1948 refugees, had suddenly become more flexible and acceptable to Israelis; as if Israeli unilateral measures would by definition only harm Palestinians.
Second, at least some of the Palestinian participants know they don’t represent a viable peace option, so they divert the conversation toward attacking Israel and rationalizing the mess they are in. The Fatah stalwarts blame the Israelis for Hamas’s victory. True, Israel contributed to the rise of Hamas, but the new Fatah narrative exonerates its own leadership of most of the responsibility for their tragic situation.
Then they want to plot with us how Fatah will retake power in the next election — assuming, mindlessly, that there will be another Palestinian election any time soon. They also reassure us that Hamas is and will remain powerless, thereby demonstrating that they are in a state of denial concerning the ramifications of a takeover — democratically, yet — by the Muslim Brotherhood with its agenda of Islamization.
Could we discuss how disengagement might be configured so as to benefit Palestinians? No, it’s not on the Palestinian, American, European or Arab agenda.
In short, the moderate Palestinians — the kind who have been trying for nearly two decades to shepherd a peace process — are traumatized by the Hamas victory. Dovish Israelis, on the other hand, seem unable to admit that at least for the time being they have no viable peace partner.
So do many well-meaning friends of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process from Europe, the United States and the moderate Arab countries. It is they who have obliged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pledge to try to negotiate with Abbas even though he knows the effort will prove fruitless. It is they who keep initiating new Track II talks aimed at “reactivating the peace process” with a near defunct PLO.
Is talking informally to Hamas a possible alternative? It’s problematic. Hamas, after all, refuses to talk peace, and in some instances refuses to talk at all unless a mountain of outlandish preconditions are met. Hamas representatives argue that the burden of proving good intentions rests with Israel — even unofficial Israel — thereby ignoring their own antisemitic charter, advocacy of terrorism and denial of Israel’s right to exist.
I confess I’m curious to enter into an extended informal discussion with Hamas adherents, if only better to “know my enemy,” since they are going to be around for a long time and we should try to take their measure. Paradoxically, that sentiment reflects my instinctive belief — one I cling to despite all my disappointments — that talking can still help.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.