Key players in Mideast talks may remain unseen

Back channels are expected to be instrumental in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations starting Wednesday.

A handshake across a table and a spray of camera flashes will probably serve as starting gun of the first official Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in seven years Wednesday – talks aimed at producing a treaty on Palestinian statehood in 2008.

Over the coming months, the talks will break into about a half-dozen subcommittees to tackle such issues as dividing Jerusalem and dealing with Palestinian refugees. But none of those discussions are likely to lead to breakthroughs necessary to clinch a final agreement, analysts say.

Just as secret back channels laid the groundwork for historic Israel-Arab advances in 1977 and 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are liable to rely on behind-the-scenes talks far removed from the public, they say.

"There is no way they can work out a framework agreement if it's a public process," says Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information.

In contrast to the sprawling panels in the formal negotiations, back channels usually involve a limited number of confidants of each leader, helping the sides build trust while ensuring that compromises with risky consequences for the sides don't leak. To ensure a blackout, they have been held at remote estates or five-star hotels in third-party countries.

Experts speculate that the hushed talks may be overseen by Vice Premier Haim Ramon – a lawyer and key ally from Mr. Olmert's Kadima party – and Yasser Abed Raboo for Mr. Abbas. Past envoys have also included businessmen, academics, and spies.

But instead of focusing on the details of an agreement, the secret talks are expected to find solutions on the three "core" disputes: agreeing on a border and the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, settling the claims of Palestinian refugees, and finding a way to transform Jerusalem into the capital of two states.

At nearly every critical juncture in Israeli-Arab talks, the sides have relied on secret dialogue to turn taboo concessions into historic compromises.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's surprise visit to Jerusalem 30 years ago was preceded by covert talks in Morocco. In 1993, talks between Israel and Palestinians were stalemated in Washington while two Israeli political scientists and envoys of Yasser Arafat met under the guise of an academic conference at an estate in the Norwegian city of Sarpsborg. The talks eventually gave birth to the Oslo Accord – a Declaration of Principles signed in Washington.

But even though Olmert and Abbas have met regularly in public over recent months, a parallel secret discussion is indispensable, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It will be hard enough under the best of circumstances to cross historic thresholds on issues that relate to the self-definition of the parties. Confidence that the other side knows the trade-offs and then can deliver their side of the bargain can only be the product of long hours of back-channel negotiations by people deemed to be authoritative by the top leaders," he said in an e-mail.

To be sure, covert talks have not always produced the desired results. Israeli-Palestinian talks in Sweden in 2000 failed to lay a sufficient foundation for a successful peace summit later that year in Camp David, Md. American businessmen Ron Lauder's mediation mission on behalf of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Syrian President Bashar Assad came up short of an agreement to exchange the Golan Heights for peace.

While the informal atmosphere of a back channel is supposed to produce the key compromise, some caution that it's a recipe for miscommunications. Dore Gold, an ex-Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, says informal talks are flawed since leaders can deny their credibility and informal envoys can go overboard.

"There are serious problems with their effectiveness," he says. "Understandings Israelis and Palestinians might agree to in a five-star hotel in Europe may not stand the test of a real negotiating session."

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