Tuning in to the Back Channels of
Peace Talks
By Steve Masters, President
voice heard!

Despite their denials, the sides are without question engaging each other.

Advocating for peace between Israel and the Palestinians has never been simple, or easy. We often have to work against conventional wisdom and harmful policies, sometimes with little open support from our decision makers. It's a lot like the peace negotiations themselves.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured several important commitments from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on increasing movement and access conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank, including the removal of 50 roadblocks. Time will tell if these commitments, unlike previous Israeli commitments to freeze settlement construction, will be honored in full. 

Notably absent from these discussions was any conversation about Hamas, and the ability of violence in Gaza and southern Israel to derail the progress of these peace talks at any moment. However, despite a few isolated events and without admitting it, it appears that over the past few weeks Israel and the Hamas-led Gaza government have honored a temporary ceasefire (negotiated via the Egyptians with tacit U.S. approval), which has allowed the first real lull in the violence in months.  

But this is what back-channel talks look like. They are held in the shadows, often the deep shadows, so that all sides can back away with little political cost, if negotiations should fail. It's why Amos Gilad, the Israeli Defense Ministry official responsible for talks with Egypt, was able to say on Israeli Army Radio that "there are no negotiations here whatsoever," informing listeners that his mission to Cairo was to bring about "a cessation of rocket fire and a halt to the smuggling of material." Israel negotiates with Egypt, Egypt negotiates with Hamas, and both sides can claim plausible deniability. One tangible result so far has been a promise made to Egypt by both sides to temporarily halt hostilities -- for three weeks, the only violence has been isolated rocket launchings by Islamic Jihad, not a party to the process.

The Israeli
government may
be listening to its
own people, 64%
of whom recently
said they want
to see negotiations
with Hamas
a ceasefire.

The most significant thing to emerge from all of the talking/not-talking, however, is the very fact that its going on: Despite their denials, the sides are without question engaging with each other. They are attempting to find a nonviolent way past the horrors of the recent escalation, in which Hamas was firing dozens of rockets into Israel on a daily basis, and Israel launched a major incursion into the Gaza Strip. Both appear to have understood that a military solution is, at the very least, flawed -- and in this, the Israeli government may be listening to its own people, 64% of whom recently said they want to see negotiations with Hamas over a ceasefire.

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The problem, of course, with back channel talks is the fact that whatever they achieve can also be lost in an instant. The ability to back away easily is not always an advantage, and it's certainly not an incentive to taking bold stands or making courageous decisions.

This is why peace activists need to work to solidify whatever gains are made, and use them to advance the process yet further.

The good news is that this may well be easier than it would have been in the past. In addition to the solid majority of Israelis who would like to see talks take place, many of the country's decision-makers and shapers have openly called for a negotiated ceasefire.

Israeli Cabinet Minister and former head of the Israeli secret service Ami Ayalon is the most recent member of the Olmert government to do so, alongside military experts such as:

  • Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, former Chief of Staff of the IDF
  • Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad
  • Ya’akov Peri, former head of the Israeli secret service
  • Major General (Ret.) Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council
  • Col. (Ret.) Shaul Arieli, former military commander of the Gaza Strip
  • Col. (Ret.) Yuval Dvier, former military commander of the Gaza Strip
  • Brigadier-General (Ret.) Shlomo Brom, former director of the Strategic Planning Division in the Israel Defense Force’s General Staff

Settler rabbi Menachem Froman recently drafted a ceasefire proposal with Khaled Amayreh, a Palestinian journalist with ties to Hamas, which received a favorable response from Hamas.

For these shifts
in opinion to
lead to a new
reality, however,
they must be
and leveraged.
Moreover, the American Jewish community is opening up to the possibility as well. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (a national Jewish umbrella organization that recently endorsed a two-state solution) has begun to circulate opinion pieces weighing the idea of a ceasefire, and many in the Jewish press are discussing it as well. In early March, Leslie Susser wrote in the New Jersey Jewish Standard: “The idea [of a ceasefire] isn’t far-fetched. Hamas long has been signaling that it is ready for a ‘hudna,’ or temporary cease-fire”; less than a week later, Jonathan Mark, Associate Editor at the New York Jewish Week, wrote: “To turn the old neo-con line on its head, I’ve been mugged by reality. It’s time for Israel to ask Hamas for a cease-fire.”

For these shifts in opinion to lead to a new reality, however, they must be amplified and leveraged. The pro-Israel, pro-peace forces must go back to our elected officials time and again – via letters, phone calls, meetings, petitions, press coverage, townhall events, any avenue possible – to let them know that a pro-peace agenda is, by definition, pro-Israel. And that one of the critical steps toward peace will be a negotiated ceasefire with Hamas.

By urging the U.S. government to aggressively seek mutually acceptable agreements between Israel and the Palestinian people, American Jews can play a real role in making back-channel achievements into verifiable reality. If we want what’s best for Israel, we have to try.

Resource Links:

"What to Make of Rice's Latest Mid-East Visit," by Daniel Levy. Prospects for Peace weblog, April 1, 2008.

"The Next War," by M.J. Rosenberg.  IPF Friday, March 28, 2008.

"Punishing Hamas Has Backfired," by Gareth Evans. The Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 2008.

"A Fundamental Misconception," by Safwat Kahlout. Bitterlemons.org weblog, March 23, 2008.

"Back Channel Diplomacy: Implications for Practice and Theory," by Anthony Wanis-St. John, Ph.D. March 2005 


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