On March 4th, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School hosted a panel discussion entitled: “Negotiations by Other Means: Track II, Unilateral Action, Robust Third Party Role and Islands of Coordination in the New Middle East.”
The panel featured three veterans of high profile Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy: Ambassador Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; Ambassador Alan Baker, also of JCPA and former chief legal advisor of Israel’s Foreign Ministry; and Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. All three have also participated in Track II diplomacy, in addition to their roles in direct negotiations. Professor Robert H. Mnookin, Chair of the Program on Negotiation, moderated the event.
A primary concern of the discussion was a widespread sense that the prospects of resuming direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians on final status issues were, as Professor Mnookin said, “extraordinarily dim.” As a result, Professor Mnookin invited the panelists to consider alternatives to direct talks, including unilateral action, among other possibilities, as a means to resolve some of the remaining Israeli-Palestinian disputes.
Ambassador Gold began by warning against overestimating back-channel approaches, which – he pointed out – have at times falsely created the impression that agreement is closer than it is. At the same time, he did cite an example of successful back-channel negotiation: the talks leading up to the peace between Israel and Jordan. And he indicated that similar approaches could produce diplomatic breakthroughs down the road, where direct talks have failed. Unilateralism, on the other hand, was far less promising to Ambassador Gold, as he recalled Israel’s “extremely negative” experience with unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Mr. al-Omari shared his co-panelist’s pessimism about direct talks at present, but he cited track II initiatives as essential to maintaining contact between the two sides, even where they do not reach tangible results. For example, he recommended continuing behind-the-scenes cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on such issues as maintaining day-to-day security and tax revenue transfers to the Palestinian Authority. He also parted company with Ambassador Gold’s stance on unilateralism, contending that small, security-driven unilateral steps could have positive results that pave the way for a multilateral diplomatic resolution.
Ambassador Baker took a more optimistic stance on the possibility of resuming direct talks. He spoke at some length on the sui generis nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as he saw it, suggesting that the impasse may resist conventional methods and models of successful international negotiation. Nevertheless, he felt that there were promising “islands of cooperation” now in place on issues such as water management, tourism, and security, which should be maintained, and that they bode well for the prospects of resuming direct talks on more contentious, final status issues.
The presentations were followed by a discussion among the panelists, and an open Q&A.