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Lessons of Israel-PLO Talks

OVER many years men and women interested in the Middle East have met in seminars, conferences, and other venues to talk about how to create peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Suddenly one such ``citizen channel'' has led to a breakthrough agreement. Why did this particular channel produce results? Are there lessons for similar ``unofficial diplomacy'' in other trouble spots?

At least seven factors played a part:

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1. Timing. The circumstances of the hour created an opportunity: the end of the cold war, the breakthrough in Israeli-Arab contacts at Madrid, the weakened position of the PLO in the Arab world, and Israel's realization that only the PLO spoke for Palestinians in the peace process.

2. Networks. According to press reports, the catalyst was an Israeli professor of history, Yair Hirschfield, who, at the risk of violating Israeli law, had been in touch with a PLO official, Ahmed Kriah. Mr. Hirschfield, in turn, was acquainted with Terje Rod Larson, director of a Norwegian research group operating in the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Larson knew Yossi Beilin, an Israeli member of the Knesset who, after the July 1992 elections, became deputy foreign minister.

3. Norway's role. Through Larson, Hirschfield arranged for Norwegian support, including the participation of Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst. This support resolved two issues that are often contentious and cause delays in approaches to difficult substantive questions: the identity of a mediator and the site for meetings. In turn, Norwegian officials were able to impress upon Mr. Beilin the seriousness and significance of the discussions between Hirschfield and Kriah. The Norwegian officials, moreover, remained in the background; mediators seeking the limelight in such a situation would not have helped.

4. Official involvement. The Norwegians, who were reporting the progress of the talks to the Israelis, prevailed on senior Israeli officials to send emissaries, which helped to assure each side that participants had authority to speak for their leaders.

5. Secrecy. At least until a definitive point is reached in any negotiation, secrecy is essential for success. Knowledge that talks are taking place on such a sensitive issue could bring pressures on all parties to suspend them. The Oslo experience demonstrated that opposing sides can keep secrets when it is in their interests to do so.

6. Informality. Participants were living together; their explorations were not confined to set meetings. Questions of relative prestige and egos that beset larger official and semi-official gatherings were absent. The fullest opportunity was given to explore and discuss ideas.

7. Focused, but limited, agenda. From the start the effort seems to have been to draft a statement of principles, within the bounds of what might be realistically achieved. The resulting statement left many matters unsettled. The participants, however, did not try to solve all problems; they looked for a means to overcome the immense obstacle of nonrecognition, which blocked meaningful dialogue between Israel and the PLO.

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It is unlikely that these exact circumstances can be duplicated to deal with other global trouble spots. If, however, when opposing sides realize that they must deal with the enemy to achieve a solution, quiet, self-effacing, academic explorations that lead to official involvement and endorsement provide a possible pattern.

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