Informal Talks Still have a Role
"Track II" or informal diplomacy played its most significant and constructive role in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations prior to the Oslo breakthrough when the Palestine Liberation Organization started direct negotiations with the Israeli government. The reason track II talks flourished at that time--the late eighties and early nineties--was that Israel was refusing to deal directly with the Palestinian leadership.
To fill the void, Palestinians and Israelis worked separately to push for a peace process. And because direct talks were not possible, many of these initiatives ended in a kind of second-tier diplomacy where non-official or semi-official Palestinians met with Israelis.
After the two sides agreed to direct negotiations, which started in 1991, there was much less need for track II diplomacy because the official leaderships of both sides were able and willing to meet and negotiate directly. As such, since the Oslo negotiations, track II diplomacy has been largely marginal and fluctuated in frequency and importance, depending on the political situation and the parties' relationship. Despite the recent attempts by Israel to portray Palestinians as being unwilling to negotiate, the truth is that this conflict has been over-negotiated, a problem aggravated by the fact that the situation on the ground forces the parties into multiple and simultaneous channels of negotiations, coordination and other forms of interaction over still-unresolved political questions.
The most prominent example of track II diplomacy after the Oslo agreements was what became known as the Geneva initiative, where non-officials or officials involved outside their official capacity convened in meetings with the objective of agreeing on key final status issues in order to demonstrate that these issues are solvable. In that exercise a great variety of politicians on both sides made breakthroughs in numerous outstanding issues of the conflict. However, the actual contribution of this exercise to the formal negotiations was very, very limited. Since the Geneva Accord, there has been no official progress that was influenced or inspired by track II conclusions.
One negative reality of track II exercises is that they have been in some cases exploited and misused by opportunists who sought either to carve out a place for themselves in the political arena or were trying to make money out of them. Many donor countries, having the best intentions of trying to encourage interaction between the two sides in order to help along the formal Palestinian-Israeli relationship, have over the last 20 years encouraged project ideas and made money available for joint projects that bring Palestinians and Israelis together to do a variety of things, including activities that could be called track II efforts. In some cases, this largesse was exploited by Palestinians and Israelis who just wanted to enjoy the fruits of this generosity but didn't necessarily intend to solve political differences. This has resulted in the gradual deterioration of such efforts.
The other and more important reason that this type of diplomacy is waning can be attributed to the fact that Israel's government, Knesset and public opinion have been drifting towards the right--so much so that those who might have championed joint initiatives and track II efforts feel discouraged and have become less engaged.
Given the current political reality, the fact that the Israeli government position and Israeli practices do not allow for the resumption of formal negotiations, track II talks can play two useful roles. The first is to prepare the ground for serious negotiations when the climate changes, particularly when the United States presidential election has run its course and Israeli society becomes interested in a serious peace process once again.
The second role is bringing about joint efforts that can help defend Palestinian rights that are being violated on a daily basis by Israel's occupation apparatus and Israeli settlers, who seem to be encouraged in confronting Palestinians by their government. While the chance of renewing the peace process is currently limited, a collapse of the status quo--the worst case scenario--is also possible if no efforts are made to maintain a baseline of gains. Track II diplomacy can play a role here and its players should include Palestinians, Israelis and members of the international community.