Thursday, November 17, 2005

Everybody’s talkin’: the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

So, I’ve been to a couple of great talks this week. Yesterday, one on UN reconstruction efforts in Liberia, today an account of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The speakers were to be two friends, a former negotiator from each side, both old friends now, but in the end only the former Israeli military lawyer could make it. He was still remarkably balanced.

It seemed that at least one of the reasons he was kept at the negotiating coalface 12 years was that – perhaps surprisingly – all stakeholders tended to see him as relatively neutral and objective in negotiations, precisely because he was from the military and not a political appointee. He struck me both as a true believer in the peace process, and a hard-headed pragmatist.

Just some of the little details he mentioned about the early days were telling. Not knowing how to speak to address the other side at first (the answer being, in the end, as people), decisions about what to wear (should serving officers attend in uniform?) and the problems of negotiating with Palestinian delegations who had sometimes not met each other, or even their head of mission, before the meetings let alone having had time or the resources to prepare.

Some of his views were surprising. He supported negotiating with groups his government regarded as terrorists, and having them involved in political processes. The idea being that once extremists become politicians, at least some of them will begin to be caught up in political reality and start to make compromises like everyone else.

He also predicted no major work could be done on present negotiations until the middle of next year when both Israel and the Palestinian Authority come through their present electoral cycles. No-one, on either side, it seems is ever willing to negotiate with a potential lame duck – there’s no guarantee your concessions to them will buy anything from their successor.

He spoke of goodwill and good people on both sides, and the saying “It’s hard to hate in person.”

He also acknowledged, but shrugged off, the one-State thesis: the idea that the solution is not two separate states, but one integrated one (the South African model) – especially given the presence of settlements in the occupied territory.

His view seemed to be that with political will, such as the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, settlements didn’t matter much. Obviously they matter a great deal to those on the ground, but he regarded the issue of territorial boundaries as being – while still very complex – relatively simple compared to the intractable wrangle that will be the final agreement on the status of Jerusalem.

He acknowledged that sometimes complex legal deals are a good thing, as they allow the result to be spun for domestic consumption as a win by all parties, such as the Israel-Jordan water deal which is capable of being presented as all things to all parties. However, he seemed of the view that anything but a simple solution would fail in Jerusalem because of the complexity of the interests involved.

A very interesting evening, given my recent efforts to explain the status at international law of the Palestinian people to undergraduates.

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