On Wednesday 13th December, in response to United States President Donald Trump recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that he and the Palestinians would no longer accept the US playing the role of third-party mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. This was followed by an statement from the Organisation of Islamic States calling the move as a declaration of the “US administration’s withdrawal from its role as sponsor of peace” (The Guardian, 13th December 2017).
Despite being a shock to many, is the potential exodus of the US from its role as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian process truly a bad thing or could it offer an opportunity for a different style of third-party invention to breath life into a peace process which has largely become stalled.
Is the US being removed from mediation a bad thing?
If one thinks about the last major breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, that of the Oslo Talks of 1993, the answer would be a definitive no.
Following the 1991 Gulf War, the United States organised the Madrid Summit in October of that year to attempt to open new phases of negotiation to bring about a conclusion to the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, kick starting almost three-years of negotiation which resulted in the 1993 Oslo Agreement (Maoz, 2004, p. 565; Cronin, 2009, p. 50: Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 2, 32). As part of the Madrid Summit and negotiations it established, the Palestinians had no formal representation and were only part of the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation though they were able to act with a level of independence (Rabinovich, 2004, p. 35; Tessler, 2009, p. 756).
Bilateral contact between the Israeli and Palestinian representatives as part of the Madrid Summit took place for the first time on 30th October 1991, breaking a long-held “taboo” that neither side would ever appear “in the same room or at the same negotiating table” (Caplan, 2010, p. 202). Yet in following years the negotiations seemed to get no where under US mediation as the First Intifada continued to rage, having broken out in 1987 and despite the revival of the process in February 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin and the close coordination and personal relationship between the US and Israel, the talks failed to produce any results. The breakthrough, when it came in August 1993, was not through US-sponsored negotiations but from the “unorthodox methods” of secret bilateral negotiations in Norway (Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 49-51; Tessler, 2009, p. 757).
The Norwegian Way
The 1993 Oslo I Agreement, which kick-started the Oslo Peace Process was reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians on “their own without any help” with Norwegian Foreign Minister Holst, his wife Marianne Heiberg, and social scientist Terge Larson and his wife, Mona Juul, acting as “generous hosts and facilitators” and “midwifed the entire process” (Shlaim, 2014, pp. 531, 534; Tessler, 2009, p. 758; Rogers, 2016). The Oslo talks were significant because they involved direct face-to-face negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians which set the future direction of talks by establishing that the “fate of the peace process lay in the hands of the protagonists rather than in the hands of the intermediaries” (Gelvin, 2005, p. 228; Shlaim, 2014, p. 534).
The secrecy of the talks in Norway were crucial for their fruitfulness as it allowed the Israelis and Palestinians to discuss highly sensitive issues in a manner that was not possible in Washington (Fraser, 2004, pp. 138).
Is the loss of US mediation actually an opportunity in disguise?
One of the biggest problems with recent attempts to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, I believe has been that the process has moved away from being centred on the protagonists towards being focused on intermediaries particularly the US. In my opinion, third party mediation like that of the US brings its own troubles and complications such as making a two-way relationship a three-way relationship in which the conflict parties can become more concerned about their relationship with the third-party mediator than with each other.
For example a summit held in Washington in October 1996 by US President Bill Clinton’s administration between Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu to revive the peace negotiations and defuse the crisis caused by the Hasmonean tunnel opening had failed to produce any agreement with Netanyahu largely agreeing to the summit to tactically avoid a diplomatic crisis with the US rather than to resolve the crisis with the Palestinians (Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 99-101; Rubenberg, 2003, pp. 71-72; Shlaim, 2014, pp. 598-599). Likewise, when negotiating the Hebron Protocol of 1998, Arafat’s main motivation was to cultivate a relationship with Clinton (Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 109-110).
Third-party mediators can also bring their own interest into play which can be detrimental for peace negotiations. From 1996, the US increasingly took over the role of intermediary not merely facilitating but acting as “mediator” and “guarantor” in both the Hebron Protocol and Wye I Agreement and continued to be involved in Camp David 2000 upon which Clinton staked his own personal desire to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement as part of his presidential legacy (Gelvin, 2005, p. 238; Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 101-105; Tessler, 2009, pp. 789, 800-803; Swisher, 2004, pp. 147-148).
During the Camp David Summit of 2000, Clinton had invited Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to attempt to break an impasse reached in the Oslo Peace Process. Arafat had believed that the summit in July 2000 was too early for an agreement, and looked to September or November 2000, preferring discreet negotiations such as those at Oslo, which could produce a “joint document leaving only a few open issues for the leaders’ decision” which could then be dealt with in a series of summits. Arafat had requested a series of summits to enable support to be gathered amongst both the Palestinian political elites and the population however this was not accepted by Israel or the US in the lead-up to Camp David (Cronin, 2009, p. 54: Gelvin, 2005, pp. 239-240; Pundak, 2001, pp. 41-42). One of Arafat’s main fears was that he or the Palestinians would be blamed for the failure of the summit, yet Clinton managed to persuade Arafat to attend on the understanding neither he nor the Palestinians would be blamed, only to go back on this promise when the summit failed. As the end to Bill Clinton’s second term in office as US president was approaching in July 2000 with US election preparations due to start properly in November, his aspirations for the agreement to be part of his legacy were dashed (Shlaim, 2014, p. 676-687; Swisher, 2004, pp. 225-226; Tessler, 2009, p. 800; Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 145-146).
In comparison during the talks which led to Oslo I, Norwegian Foreign Minister Holst and social scientist Larson had acted as facilitators to enable the Israelis and Palestinians to create a bilateral agreement on their own (Shlaim, 2014, pp. 531, 534). Throughout the fourteen sessions held during the secret Oslo talks, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations resided in close proximity to one another with meetings often taking place in informal settings enabling the building of confidence between the Israelis and Palestinians with the isolated and intensive nature of their discussion enabling the breakthrough that had been possible during the public negotiations at Washington (Morag, 2002, p. 205; Tessler, 2009, p. 758).
In my opinion, the questioning of the US role as a third-party mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process could actually provide an opportunity to alter the way the peace process has been governed in recent years, namely the role of third-party mediators. In the absence of trust and the presence of distrust, conflict parties such as the Israelis and Palestinians have looked to third-party mediation to overcome their distrust (Saari, 2011, pp. 220-221). However, I believe, trust in a third-party mediator can become an easy replacement for the more challenging task of overcoming distrust and building trust with your opponent and can result in the loss of opportunities to build personal relationships which can enable both sides to develop mutually beneficial agreements which actors have ownership over as they developed them together.
This can be seen in the Oslo talks where, facilitated by Holst and Larsen, Israel’s representatives Dr. Yair Hirschfeld and Dr. Ron Pundak and the PLO, represented by Abu Ala and two advisers, Hassan Asfour and Maher el-Kurd met and were able recognise that there existed a closeness between the Palestinian and Israeli position on economic co-operation and joint industries in the work of Abu Ala, Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, as well as the shared gains that could be secured by an agreement between the two sides. Though talks were initially focused on economic cooperation it developed into dialogue about a joint declaration of principles for wider Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (Shlaim, 2014, p. 531; Behrendt, 2007, pp. 47-49).
As both sides developed a “mutual interest in making the Oslo channel a success”, the Oslo talks moved an unofficial to an official channel (Behrendt, 2007, pp. 50-53, 57-59) In formalising the Oslo talks, Israel had recognised Abu Ala to be a “trustworthy negotiating partner” and sent Foreign Minister Uri Savir as well as Joel Singer, a retired lawyer with the IDF, to continue to work alongside the PLO delegation including Abu Ala and Abu Mazen. Crucial for success of the talks and the subsequent Oslo I agreement which would provide the basis for subsequent agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians, was the “warm, trusting personal relationship” between Abu Alaa and Uri Savir (Behrendt, 2007, pp. 2-3, 57-61; Rubenberg, 2003, pp. 51-52. 86; Shulz, 2004, p. 93; Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 52-53).
With the US’s position as a third-party mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process in question if not gone, perhaps now is an opportune time to awaken the original spirit of Oslo 1993 and encourage both sides to return to intimate, direct face-to-face in secret provided by simple hotels rather than the high-pressure contexts of summits in which outsiders, whether the UN or nation-states who like Norway, act merely as facilitators, allowing both sides to work through and develop answers to the sensitive issues that stand before them.
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Cronin, Audrey Kurth. (2009), “Negotiations: Transition Toward a Legitimate Political Process” in How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline of Terrorist Campaigns, (Princeton University Press: Princeton), pp. 35-72.
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The Guardian (13th December 2017), “Palestinians No Longer Accept US as Mediator, Abbas Tells Summit”, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/13/recep-tayyip-erdogan-unite-muslim-world-trump-east-jerusalem [Accessed on 6thJanuary 2018]
Article by David Wilcox
Photograph – Jerusalem Post