Middle East


The Long and Winding Road (Map)

On the corner of the aptly named Shalom Road in the heart of  Tel Aviv, the lights burn brightly in two adjacent buildings. In the Peres Center for Peace, Oslo accords architect Ron Pundak is pushing forward new ideas for the peace process. In the adjacent building, his Oslo partner, Yair Hirshfield, is directing the activities of the Economic Cooperation Founda-tion, another institute with similar objectives. Former Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres (now the temporary leader of the Labor Party) has an office in the former building; his former political deputy and fellow peace promoter, Yossi Beilin, has one in the latter.

Ten years ago this month, Israel and the Palestinians formalized the Oslo peace accords, a milestone indelibly symbolized by the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. The journey from that high point has been uneven. Initial hopes for a speedy five-year peace process encountered numerous obstacles and, after coming to a dead end in 2000, the parties found themselves back at square one throughout the almost three years of intense conflict that followed. Now, with the first steps toward implementation of the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace, the two sides are once again on the move.

The 10 years since Oslo have produced what has become known as the “peace industry.” People-to-people programs have been held, Israeli-Palestinian joint research projects pursued, peace institutes and grass-roots programs aimed at bringing the two peoples closer together created. Most important, informal, off-the-record Track II discussions and negotiations have been held. Through these gatherings, diplomats, politicians, public figures, and academics have met to brainstorm ways to move the peace process forward. As the diplomatic-level Track I talks sputtered and ground to a halt in the wake of the second Intifada, the Track II talks kept vital channels of communication open.

These negotiations take place throughout the Middle East and Europe and, in the eyes of their detractors (often the people who are not invited to attend), are nothing more than a wasteful, expense-account-fueled excuse for travel funded by North American or European governments for their own purposes. The critics also point out that the meetings have not produced practical solutions to the conflict—as evidenced by events of the past two years.

Notwithstanding the criticisms, many ideas generated at these informal discussions have enabled the negotiators to have a better grasp of what is possible. New ideas on boundary demarcations, the removal of Jewish settlements in Palestinian-controlled territory, the role of monitoring and peacekeeping forces, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem—to name the most critical issues still to be resolved—have emerged at these talks and have been adopted by political leaders. Track II discussions have also been sounding boards for the wording of declarations later used in Track I negotiations.

Of greatest importance is the growing network of contacts—primarily between Israelis and Palestinians but also including representatives from North American, European, and other Middle Eastern countries—that has developed.
These contacts have kept open lines of communication when formal talks were all but nonexistent and the peace process seemed to have broken down. They provided a parallel track, a slip road, along which messages and ideas could be transferred.

Where the peace industry has failed, however, has been in its inability to transfer the message of peace beyond a relatively small group of diplomatic, political, and academic elites. It is, as a colleague of mine calls it, a diplomats’ “700 Club” in which a group of U.S.-sponsored discussants on their way to a meeting encounters a group of European-sponsored discussants on their way back from another meeting as each walks through the corridors of Frankfurt or Vienna airport. They exchange grins and handshakes, drink coffee, extend personal wishes to each other’s families, and agree that if it were left to them, they would have secured a peace agreement years ago.

Of course, it is the implementation on the ground that counts, and this has failed throughout the 10 years of Track I and II negotiations. But as long as the conflict remains unresolved, the peace industry will continue to grow.

Much of it will be wasteful and self-aggrandizing, but somewhere in there will be the germ of an idea, a new blueprint, or a backdoor contact that will make it worthwhile. Eventually, it will help smooth the asphalt on the new road that is beginning, once again, to be paved. It will help provide the directions and road signs that we in the peace industry believe will help us arrive at the correct destination.

The writer is professor of political geography in the department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.