Paul Scham

Visiting Scholar at George Washington University

Topics: track I - track II cooperation, negotiation, peace processes

Interviewed by Susan Allen Nan and Andrea Strimling — 2003

Listen to Full Interview

A: With regard to the role of the interaction of Track I and Track II diplomacy, I think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gives a good example of how they can interact and how they have different roles. The main Palestinian interlocutor and organization since the 60's was the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Until 1993, every Israel government had an absolutely firm prohibition against dealing with the PLO, and tried to stop everyone from dealing with it. The Israeli leadership saw it only as an obstacle to Middle East peace. For several years in the 80's there was even a law prohibiting Israeli citizens from speaking to the PLO, except--and there were several saving exceptions--in journalistic or academics meetings. So people could speak in that context. But the reason that that was passed was precisely because these contacts were taking place. For many years back even in the 60's, certainly starting in the 70's and gathering steam in the 80's, there were a lot of contacts between academics, journalists and others who heard each other's stories, who listened to what each other were saying. They were not serving, for the most part, as stalking horses; though there were times when some contact may have been made with the acquiescence if not the direction of the Israeli government. But what this led to was the Oslo agreements. This is a perfect example of the sorts of contact that can lead to progress.

Many researchers, one of them from my institute, the Truman Institute for Peace at Hebrew University, made contact with Palestinians after this law was repealed. They found that there was a willingness to meet in early 1993, when the Rabin government was fairly new and the PLO was under a lot of pressure in the wake of the first Gulf War. They ascertained that there was a serious channel to Arafat, and then they used their own contacts with the Israeli government--going to Yossi Beilin who was the deputy minister of foreign affairs, and then Perez, and then Rabin who was prime minister--and eventually Track II turned into a formal Track I negotiation, a secret one. It bypassed the traditional diplomacy and the traditional means of negotiation, which were being highly unsuccessful in Washington precisely at that time. The role of Track II changed after that. In my view, it performed its precise service, in the sense of creating enough trust so that it could bring the official political leaders of the two sides into contact. The result was the Declaration of Principles in 1993. The Truman institute, where I work, had been doing a number of academic studies with Palestinians on what it called peace making. How could you get to the point of talking with each other. What would a final status agreement look like? Once this work was being done, it moved its sights towards what we could call peace building, or recognizing--something that has become all too obvious since then--that peace begins with a peace treaty. You cannot make a treaty in what we call a protracted inter-communal struggle, where it's not a matter of making an agreement and the population accepts it. The population has very, very strong feelings. It's very divided. In the early 1990s there were tremendous social conflicts in Israel between different groups who felt strongly that either this was the right path or this was a disastrous path. The same things were taking place in Palestinian society, and ultimately, in my view, there was a failure to deal sufficiently on both sides with the opposition groups that caused the breakdown of the process as a whole.

But what happened through the period from '93 until the second Intifada began in September of 2000 was a tremendous amount of civil society meeting and cooperation. I would certainly say that the majority view at this point is that it didn't work because things fell apart. By any perspective the fact is that you had Camp David, which we hoped would settle it. It didn't. And the two sides differ on why Camp David fell apart and why the Intifada began. Obviously the interactions since September 2000 have been primarily violent ones. I believe that the role of civil society up to that point was to try to create a number of ideas and to try to bring them to the policy-makers. I feel they were being heard. Again, my institute, the Truman Institute, as a part of Hebrew University, it has a lot of people who've retired from the military, the intelligence service, the foreign service, and these people have a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience and contacts within the government. So there is no firewall, nor should there be, between the things that they are saying and the sorts of things that they can legitimately do by themselves as free agents. They can do things that the government people cannot, but they have the access to the government to be able to bring things to their attention. This is what brought about the negations that led to Oslo, and also what allows people to come up with new ideas.

The fact is that among Israelis and Palestinians, I was saying there was an outpouring of civil society and cooperation, but the figures show that less than three percent of either side ever met with each other. So you're talking about tens of thousands of people, but for the most part people are immensely ignorant of what the other side thinks. Palestinians meet Israelis primarily as soldiers. Israelis used to meet Palestinians primarily as day laborers. This is not a situation, an environment, in which serious discussion and respect for each other tends to take place. Even for people who are politically liberal and in favor of the peace process, unless they work in this area, they have had virtually no chance of talking with someone of a similar intellectual or social background, even though that person might live a quarter of a mile away, on the other side of divided Jerusalem, for example, or elsewhere in the West Bank or Gaza or something like that. I feel very privileged in that my work at the institute enabled me to hear the stories of both sides and to try to understand how the two sides talked about things. And during periods of conflict, like now, it's almost like being in a hall of mirrors, because the perception on the two sides of what is happening is very different.

I think that the role of civil society now, in a period of conflict that may be ameliorating or may not at the moment that I speak, is to try to create an understanding on both sides of what the polls show. They say that the majorities on both sides recognize that they have to live with the other side. Both sides see the current Intifada as existential, as something that shows that the other side is trying to destroy them, physically, nationally, and in every other way. The polls show that both peoples now, as opposed to 15 years ago, say we know we can't get rid of them. We would love to wake up tomorrow and find that the other side has decamped and disappeared, and they should do that, but they realize it's not going to happen. That in itself, which may be obvious to the rest of the world, is a tremendous realization, because that means that the two sides have to work together and that's where the NGO community and civil society can work with each other to try to create both personal contacts and understanding of what the other side says. I think there needs to be more support for that, because coming to an agreement, as in 1993, is really only the beginning. If it's not supported by the populations of both sides, then it will go nowhere. In 1993, even though there was majority support, the significant opposition--the armed, ideological, sometimes religious opposition--helped to torpedo the success of the Oslo agreements and the process that it set up. At this point one of the things that everyone is acutely aware of is that you have to work with civil society and try to convince people, try to bring in a variety of people. Ultimately, however, repression of people who don't accept a peaceful path has to take place.

Q: Given these roles of Track I and Track II, what do you see as the value of Track I and Track II interacting with each other, and what would be ways to improve those interactions?

A: I think that there need to be more mechanisms in which the two sides work together. My institution is an example, but we're in a special position as a well-respected, long time institute. We've been there for almost 35 years. Most of civil society is NGOs. And the fact is that the political views of the people who are setting up the contacts and who are working with the other side on civil society are very different from the political views of the people who are running the government. One of the reasons there was an interaction before Oslo was because the Labor Party was there, and while their views were not the same as the people who were meeting, they were close enough so that they could speak the same language. They may have had social contacts, they knew who each other were. And I think there has to be more recognition on the part of the government of the important role of creating these contacts, and of listening to the other side. On the other hand, I think there has to be recognition on the part of the NGOs that there is only so much they can do. Ultimately, the people who are in favor of peace--and again I'm speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I suspect this is true in many others--their role is useful only insofar as they can bring a majority of the people with them. In my view, and I'm speaking just for myself here, a lot of the left-wing Israeli peace groups don't respect the fears of the Israeli people sufficiently, and therefore they marginalize themselves. They speak freely with Palestinians and they recognize the Palestinian narrative very well, but they don't have respect in many cases for the Israeli narrative, though they may have been born and educated in Israel. Therefore I think there has to be an understanding on the part of the NGO community that is doing this, that for them to meet with Palestinians is nothing. It's the sort of thing that most Israelis have never done, though at one point many wanted to. I know many Palestinians, I work with them, I talk to them, we find agreement. But the value of my work is only good insofar as it reaches back to the mainstream of the civil society, the people who are skeptical, to put it mildly, of peace. I think that interaction with civil society can help the government recognize that there can be understanding on the two sides. In that sense the larger civil society can pressure the government, and that's not happening at this point. Part of the reason, and this is by no means the whole reason, is the fact that there is often a disconnect between the larger part of civil society, which is to say the views of the majority, and the small number of people who are working with the other side.

Q: Okay, thank you.