Talking Mideast Peace? Then Talk in Secret

By Daoud Kuttab

May 23, 2003

The scores of innocent Israelis killed in the recent spate of Palestinian suicide attacks and the scores of innocent Palestinians killed before and since in various Israeli operations point to the need for a new approach to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This new approach must be based on secrecy and the working out of an agreement away from the pressures and pitfalls of a publicly declared process.

A pattern has been emerging for years. On the eve of any publicized high-level diplomatic meeting, hard-liners get active. An Israeli assassination or incursion here or a gruesome Palestinian suicide attack in an Israeli city there. The situation has become so predictable that Palestinians and Israelis brace themselves every time a crucial target date for decision-making approaches.

For the most part, the hard-liners' attacks and counterattacks are meant to sabotage progress in the peace process and send a message to their own leaders and the public. Invariably there are retaliatory strikes and finger-pointing about the other side's insincerity and lack of desire for peace.

The U.S.-advocated "road map" to peace is another such open invitation for any side opposed to the compromises that peace entails.

To both sides, the idea of controlling their own hard-liners seems next to impossible; such an internal crackdown would lead to a civil war.

Those who genuinely seek peace have two choices: Keep moving ahead in the talks no matter what happens on the ground or work behind the scenes to produce an agreement that will be presented to the public to vote on as a done deal.

The first option calls for simultaneously working for peace while fighting violence. The slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicly adopted this approach. He repeatedly said that peace talks must continue as if there were no violence and that violence must be tackled as if there were no peace talks.

Israel's current government is unable or unwilling to adopt such a policy. By canceling his long-awaited trip to Washington after Sunday's suicide bombings in Israel, Ariel Sharon has shown he can't adopt the Rabin approach as a way to stop the cycle of violence.

The Palestinian Authority has not fared any better, even with help from the head of the Egyptian intelligence service. Attempts to convince the militants to unilaterally stop their anti-Israeli attacks have failed.

This leaves Palestinian and Israeli leaders and the international community with one simple mechanism to break this ugly cycle of violence: just do it out of the public eye.

The 1993 memorandum of understanding worked out secretly in Oslo between Palestinians and Israelis proved successful for some time, until other forces derailed it. Certain provisions of the 1995 Dayton accords to bring peace to Bosnia were worked out away from public scrutiny. A number of secret negotiations for exchanging prisoners also have succeeded where public diplomacy has failed.

Everyone involved knows exactly what is needed to bring about a fair and viable agreement to the Mideast conflict. What we need now is a handful of honest and authentic leaders meeting in secret to work out all the details.

After getting the blessing of the United States and other international parties, such a package agreement would be presented to the Palestinian and Israeli publics. A majority on both sides would be called upon to accept or reject the deal without the chance to make any amendments.

I am confident that such a concerted effort would receive positive approval in a referendum of Palestinians and Israelis. It would surely end unnecessary suffering, injury and death and usher in genuine peace.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. This is from the Los Angeles Times.