Openness and Secrecy in the Mideast Peace Process

ON Oct. 30 in Madrid a process of Middle East peace negotiations is scheduled to begin. It is likely to be a diplomatic struggle fought out as much in public as it is in secret.The co-chairs of the conference, the United States and the Soviet Union, will most likely seek to establish some understandings among all the parties regarding public utterances. Given the number of participants and deep differences among them, this task will not be easy. In the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David, President Jimmy Carter was able to control the public aspect; the meetings were held in a single, isolated spot and only one press center existed. In contrast, the current negotiations involve a three stage process. The plenary is in a major world capital - Madrid. In the second stage, bilateral talks between Israel and individual Arab countries may begin in a variety of locations. The envisioned third stage, dealing with regional issues at a locat ion yet to be named, would widen the number of parties involved. In the age of television and satellites, a worldwide audience will be watching and listening. Pressures for pictures and statements will be intense. Endless discussions by advocates and experts will fill the air waves and the press. Each party will have its public agenda. Syrians will seek to emphasize their steadfastness to the Palestinian and Arab cause. The Palestinians involved will be defending themselves against those of their people opposed to any negotiations with Israel and opposed to the restrictions placed on Palestinian representation. The Israelis will be speaking to the several factions of their complex political scene as well as to their supporters in America. The US administration, especially as the 1992 election approaches, will strive to keep alive hopes for the success of its post-Gulf-war initiative. And all parties will seek to impress on the US public their desire for peace. The US has been at the heart of the construction of the series of meetings that will begin in Madrid next week. Through tireless diplomacy, Secretary of State James Baker has gained the acceptance of the parties to a series of understandings. US pressure has created this process. No party, except possibly the Palestinians, feels deep compulsion at this time to change the status quo. Each side, therefore, is coming to the conference in part because it does not want to say "no" to pressure from the US. Arab participants are joining because they believe the Bush administration is sincere in its commitment of "land for peace." In the event of a breakdown, whether temporary or permanent, each party will wish to make sure that it is not blamed. It will wish, instead, to place responsibility publicly on the other side, or on the US administration. Until now, Mr. Baker has handled the public aspects of his negotiations with great skill. Confining the policymaking to a small circle, he has reduced substantially the kinds of leaks that have often frustrated past efforts at Middle East peace. His statements have been the primary source of information on details. His interlocutors in the area appear to have cooperated in a remarkable way. As the process widens, however, that degree of control will diminish. As diplomats have discovered through the ages, open discussions are often in conflict with effective diplomacy. A public statement by one party on an issue inevitably requires a response from the other. The substance of secret negotiations is thus moved permanently into the public and political spotlight. When the level of open discord increases, sensitivities of national and personal pride arise and the continuation of official negotiations becomes more difficult and sometimes impossible. Further, to re ach a common denominator of political discourse, issues become oversimplified. Such oversimplification can raise expectations of results that cannot be achieved and thus create unwarranted assumptions of failure in times of breakdown. In today's world, a project of such global importance cannot be conducted in total secrecy. Open discussion of the process and the issues will be inescapable in the democracies involved. Even in countries with controlled media, public statements of their positions will be unavoidable. The task for the convenors and participants will be to recognize this aspect and seek, at each step, to coordinate the political need for public expression with the requirement for closed discussion of the complex and sensitive issues involved.

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