Peace Talks Cannot Take Place in the Dark

Can Netanyahu, as leader of a democratic nation, justify keeping his people in the dark while he is negotiating issues that will determine their future? Is this a new version of democracy, a posteriori democracy? Sign first and approve later?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on September 28, 2010.)

“Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” This was the first of President Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points, first enunciated on January 8, 1918, before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in a speech in which he charted his vision of peace in the world after World War I.

Not all diplomatic negotiations conducted since then have proceeded frankly and in the public view. Notorious, of course, for their secret nature were the negotiations between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union that produced the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in August 1939, which was the prelude to World War II. These despotic regimes had no need to keep their citizens informed of the negotiations or their impending outcome. They had means of assuring their support once the results were made public.

But what of democracies? Do they abide by Wilson’s vision, conducting their negotiations in the public view? And why would a democratic government not want to keep its citizens informed of the nature of negotiations that might determine their fate while its representatives were conducting them?

To these questions, the astute politician will reply that it is easier to obtain the public’s approval of an agreement once it is faced with a fait accompli – a deal that has already been finalized – than to retain the public’s support while the negotiations proceed. Hardly democratic, you might say.

Israel is a case in point. It may be the only democracy that conducts major negotiations “not in the public view.” Everyone remembers the secret negotiations conducted by Ehud Barak with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, and continued by his foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami at Taba in January 2001. Unknown to the Israeli public, they offered Arafat “everything but the kitchen sink,” but were turned down.

Barak had by then lost the support not only of a majority of the Knesset, but even of his own government, and was fully aware that he was facing a national election that, according to the polls, he was destined to lose. Nevertheless, he carried out secret negotiations in full knowledge that he was flouting basic principles of democratic government.

In February 2001, he lost the elections by a landslide. One can only assume he had counted on reversing the trend in public opinion by presenting Israel’s citizens with the agreement he had hoped to conclude before the elections.

The secret negotiations presented no problem for Arafat, as the Palestinian Authority, which he headed, was a one-man show. But for the prime minister of democratic Israel, it was an entirely different story.

Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is conducting secret negotiations that might very well determine Israel’s future. It is said that his party colleagues have no inkling of what is going on in the negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, held under American tutelage. The same seems to be true for most of his government, the inner cabinet and his foreign minister. Those conducting the negotiations on Israel’s behalf are sworn to secrecy.

The principle of transparency seems to be reserved for other activities of the Israeli government. It is not being applied to these negotiations.

To allay the concerns that Israel’s citizens have regarding these negotiations, Netanyahu has announced that any agreement he reaches will be presented to the citizenry for approval. A Likud MK, no doubt with Netanyahu’s encouragement, has already introduced legislation in the Knesset for a national referendum on the subject. Thus Israel’s citizens, while being kept in the dark during the negotiations, can expect to be presented with a fait accompli if and when an agreement is reached.

Netanyahu may not have the support of a majority of the Knesset or the Israeli public for whatever “painful” concessions he is proposing to Abbas in secret, but he seems to be counting on the fact that Israel’s citizens would hesitate to reject an agreement once it has been concluded. Considering the demographics of Israel’s population, such an agreement is more likely to be approved in a national referendum than in the Knesset.

Can Netanyahu, as leader of a democratic nation, justify keeping his people in the dark while he is negotiating issues that will determine their future? Is this a new version of democracy, a posteriori democracy? Sign first and approve later?

Some would say that the end justifies the means. But that is a principle applied in totalitarian regimes. It is not fit for a democracy.

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