Peace summits like the one President Obama is hosting for Israeli and Arab leaders this week serve an important purpose: they bestow the prestige and power of the White House on a process that has sputtered for years. But rarely have big public summits led to peace agreements in the Middle East. More often, deals (or their main principles) are hashed out in total secrecy by trusted emissaries in obscure venues. Take the process that led to the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, for example. It started with secret meetings between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Tuhami in Morocco, where the Egyptian side learned for the first time that Israel was ready to cede all of Sinai. The framework agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993 followed months of secret talks by academics—and, later, deputies—in Oslo. Even the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty a year later was drafted mostly in secret meetings between the Mossad’s Ephraim Halevy and King Hussein.
The secrecy allows vulnerable politicians (and Israeli and Arab politicians are almost always vulnerable) to explore sensitive topics without worrying that the negotiating process itself will jeopardize their political standing. Suppose, for example, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to dismantle most settlements in the West Bank—a necessity if he’s serious about getting an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A leak from the talks indicating as much might prompt an insurrection within Netanyahu’s right-wing government. The same goes for Abbas, who, sooner or later in talks with Israel, will have to concede the Palestinian demand for refugee repatriation. When he does, Abbas will face a sharp backlash from Hamas and from inside his own party, Fatah.
Recognizing the advantages of secret talks, Netanyahu has tried several times during the past year to interest Palestinians in a back channel, according to an Israeli official who hasworked alongside Netanyahu for much of his current term. In secret, the strategy was for Netanyahu to offer concessions and gauge the Palestinian willingness to bend—without the risk of losing his coalition. If an agreement did appear possible, he could go public with the outline and put it to a referendum or even call a snap election. The Israeli official told me he thought Netanyahu might possibly be willing to risk his coalition for the prospect of having his name attached to a historic peace agreement. But he would not be willing to risk it merely to engage the other side.
Palestinians repeatedly turned down the offer, the Israeli source said. A Palestinian official confirmed the account, explaining that Abbas deeply distrusts Netanyahu. In secret talks, where there is no third party holding the sides to their word and no public record that forces a measure of accountability, trust is paramount. Abbas believes Netanyahu’s goal in pressing for negotiations—whether open or secret—was to deflect pressure from Washington. And when the Palestinian leader agreed to direct talks, according to people around him, he did so believing it would expose Netanyahu as a fraud. That objective can be achieved more effectively in open negotiations, where Americans monitor the talks and the sides periodically report on their progress. As long as Abbas doubts Netanyahu’s sincerity, he has no use for a secret channel with Israel.
The upshot, then, is that Israelis and Palestinians will have to overcome their sizable differences in a negotiating environment that is less than ideal. One thing the Americans can do to improve the climate is insist the sides keep leaks to a minimum and avoid grandstanding. But if you can’t grandstand, many Israelis and Palestinians will ask themselves, what’s the point of showing up at all?