Joel Peters

 

Department of Politics and Government, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Topics: transformation, track II (citizen) diplomacy, communication, intervention

Interviewed by Susan Allen Nan and Andrea Strimling — 2003


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Q: We really want to thank you, first and foremost, for "The Ottawa Process," the paper you sent. It was very interesting.

A: It was interesting going through the Ottowa Process because it was three years long, and we all had different memories and we all wanted to actually take stock, you know. We spent a lot of time in our life investing in this, and then we sort of questioned what we achieved. What did we do wrong, and could it have been different? It was very valuable for us to actually take stock for ourselves to see what the faults were in this. And also the Canadian government had asked us to do this as well to see how they could learn from an assessment of a project that they were involved in both as funders and recipients.

Q: Well it gave us a very good grounding and background for the conversation and it was really full of insight. So it was helpful. We'd like to give you a very brief overview of the Symposium plans to set the context and then dive into this discussion. As I think we mentioned to you, the symposium grows out of a secretary's open forum that happened last year that formerly ACRON, now Alliance, co-sponsored with the Secretary's co-forum at the State Department. And Mark Grossman and Don Steinburg spoke on behalf of State and then there were a number of Alliance members who spoke on behalf of Track II and it was a very successful event with a lot of interest. And what we realized is that it sort of set the stage but didn't take the dialog far enough. In other words, it's easy to talk about the importance of cooperation between official and unofficial actors, it's a lot more difficult to actually achieve that. So we developed this idea for a symposium that would enable people really working in conflict situations in official and unofficial organizations to learn to reflect together and to plan together about how to engage more effectively in cooperation. So this symposium at the end of November is intended to take it to the next step and it will be part of a much longer term set of efforts, we expect and intend. And the partners on this project, the formal partners are ACT, Alliance for Conflict Trasformation, which Susan is thedirector of , the Federal Mediation and Reconciliation Service, the Alliance for Conflict Prevention and Resolution and now US Institute of Peace. So it's a four way official/unofficial partnership. So does that give you a clear view of the context?

A: Sure, it's needed because the officials don't really know how to use Track II, and Track II practitioners have a very strange relationship with officials as well. If it's going to be of any value, there needs to be a clearer understanding of what we can do, and more importantly, what we can't do.

[Audio begins heres]

Q: Exactly, and that leads us beautifully into the real purpose, the heart of this discussion. Because you have had so much, and such varied experience with Track II efforts, and you've had opportunities to really reflect and think about how to maximize the impact of these efforts in the future, we wanted to try to structure a discussion with you about some of the key questions that have emerged for us in doing this preparation. We'd like you to drawon whatever stories or examples come to mind that you can feel that you can share at this stage. I think the interview should start here perhaps: I guess maybe the place to start is just an overview of the experiences that you have had in terms of interaction with official and unofficial actors and what roles you've played in those various experiences.

A: OK, I think the first thing that needs to be laid out is that Track II is a sweeping term, covering a whole variety of different types of meetings. There are meetings that are Track II which have no official in the room and yet the people who are there are people who have connections with officials or with the policy-making process, and therefore are able to be feed in to that higher level the conclusions and the ideas from those meetings. And there are Track II meetings which are small, which have officials. And there are Track II meetings which have 30-40 people, and are sort of gender free and value free, which have a lot of officials and a lot of academics in them. I've been involved in all of those types of meetings and each have very different dynamics in their impacts. That's one of the things needs to clarifying, is the relationship between all those different types of meetings we call Track II.

Q: So what's the range of unofficial efforts with which you've been involved?

A: I've been involved in the rightest meetings, which were connected with the agenda of the multi-lateral peace talks, and that was at the ?Basque symmetry conference? Those dealing specifically with the agenda of those multi-lateral talks when ?step in each way? Which was responsible for a race which had the key official players coming together and talking in an off-the-record environment about the future process with a number of key academics who could feed in ideas and that specifically relates to the agenda of the process. That is to say, at that very same point, there were discussions that had been the officials of multi-lateral talks about the future of the process, where it wants to go, how it should develop. And the Track II environment which I set up allows that free range in expression which would feed directly into the policy making process. And that way, we had people specifically coming to the meetings discussing an agenda that was driven by what the official's agenda was. So it was in a sense a sort of quasi-negotiation. It wasn't real full negotiation because the talks weren't negotiation. Those talks are often described as being forms of seminar diplomacy in and of itself that are very easy to bring in officials and such.

Q: I couldn't quite hear, the connection isn't perfect. They were described as what kind of diplomacy?

A: Seminar diplomacy. The official process actually reflects in some ways ideas generated by officials discussing openly rather than negotiated. That was a set of talks specifically into process and there were also links about the non-dot org meetings on a number of the issues, be it the water talk, or the environmental talk, the arms-control and regional security which had a series of meetings which discussed very much the agenda of those talks which was organized by the University of California, those specifically on security issues. And of course the refugee talks that I was involved in also had that relationship with those multi-lateral talks. So that's one setting that I've been involved in. Another setting was the meetings on refugees. This was set up by myself and Rex Brynan With Jill Tansley From ??? in Canada and Jenni Stein. And that was, we were actually bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to talk about issues relating to the Palestinian refugee problem. And those talks were at two levels. One which was a more closed group, a core group that was raised in Palestine which would come together regularly which would discuss ways of what the whole process would be and to try to develop some forum of vision pacer related to Palestinian refugee group. That was a small group and then through a much larger number of public meetings, by invitation, which were in the Ottawa process and those with ?seldom confrontations as a solution to the Palestinian problem the question of unrest and the whole question of financial aid as part of the refugee problem. There were also a whole number of inter-Arab meetings even within that which had been organized by ??? Institute of International Affairs. In addition, I've been involved in a whole set of meetings called EURONESCO, this is actually Europe and the Mediterranean and it's the output of the European Mediterranean partnership set up by the European Union (EU) in 1995. A number of meetings that are bringing together research institutes from Europe, and from the Mediterranean area including Israel and the Arab countries, but not the Balkan countries. There have been a number of other meetings related to Europe and the Middle East which brings together Europeans, Israelis, and people from the Middle East.

Q: And these are non-official actors?

A: These are non-official actors, but again, many of these meetings include officials in there. Officials from the EU or from the governments of the EU, but these are from the commission so many of these discussions include both upper levels of officials and non-officials. About the future of the European-Middle East relations or Europe and the Mediterranean. And finally, I've been involved in a number of other dialogues with Palestinians, especially over the last few years, trying to get through all the violence and see where we can go. So that gives a range, and as you can see, some of these small approach meetings with a very limited number of people and some which are really more academic seminars which bring together officials and academics and interesting people. And of course, it feeds in, because the important role of this is that it gives officials the chance to come and to engage in the discussions and to hear about ideas and ways forward to meet people which they would otherwise not meet. So that gives you the range. That goes through the period of 12-15 years, really since 1991, that I've been doing this process.

Q: So, I think we really want to go right to your insights about this, when you think of this general topic of interaction between official and un-official actors and official and un-official processes, understanding that the terminology is used very broadly without a clear definition. What lessons have really emerged for you a most important.

A: Well, the first one is we'll take a sweep over this last decade but when you try to engage in Track II dialog, officials were very skeptical of the values of Track II. We have a whole nature of diplomacy and the way officials and diplomats deal with Track II changed dramatically over the last 10 years. In the beginning when you would talk about this, officials were very skeptical of the values of these meetings and very skeptical values in coming and sharing. The idea of diplomats, opening up and speaking off the record and also relating what their agenda would be was very limited and seeing the value of all this which was very academic and NGOs and once you get in on the act in a place where they had no right to be. Now, they would go to the flip side, and that within the break-down of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship at the former level, officials have gone almost 110 % the other way and said Track II is the only way that you can challenge the communication open, its' the policy that lack of dialog can challenge the communication open to think about the ?genses? and moving forward so there is a dramatic transformation in attitude.

Q: Within which communities of officials?

A: I'd say perhaps throughout all officials, in some countries they are much more overworked practices ?junkies? are happy to find, happy to participate and are happy to promote and if one looks a bit now, if you were to think of your people as diplomats and say to them, what do you know about Track II? They would probably now say I've been to Track II meetings. They would probably even say, I'm involved in a Track II process related to my daily activity. And this is such a new environment for them. It is very hard today to find a diplomat who has never been to a Track II meeting. Now, you may get a different answer if you say "What did you take out of those meetings and how did it fit into the process? And what values?" And you would get very different answers. I know a friend of mine who works for the ministry of defense in London and when she would go to seminars and to research institutes on those subjects she would say, well you get very little answers, it doesn't really help with what we needed to know, they are much more driven by day to day problems and many of these sessions are interesting but there nothing more than informed chat shows that you can watch on the television. And therefore, the amount of what we take back to our day to day work is very limited. Where it is important to officials is if they want to try to reach out and do things which things by their mandate aren't able to do.

Q: Why do you think this dramatic change in attitudes has occurred?

A: Because I think people see the value in opening up. Especially to diplomacy and conflict resolution as a formal nuance and how we do it. There is a formal great appreciation, the NGO, academic world can do things and that there is a value at stake or the Track I, the workings such as "How much do they want?" the work in that area. In one of these areas, you can bring people together because they have a way to come together and in different context. A US official can fit in a room of where maybe somebody from North Korea or from Iran or Libya and be able to hear those views. An official would be able to sit in a room where perhaps an Israeli and somebody from Saudi Arabia were sitting and having an exchange and hearing that type of exchange and that could be useful to hear in that respect. It opens up different types of learning which officials can't get just from communicating dry telegrams and the personal contact. Track II is not just the discussions around the table, but the expression around coffee, dinner, the environment is very critical because it takes people out of their normal environment. People are much freer, and even though you will often see officials when speaking are often constrained by the mandates of what they can say. But they are still able to share and invariably they are able to hear. Now if the Track II meeting is specifically on a subject in whichthey are mandated to be working on and some of the most recent discussions maybe involved in looking at questions about 3rd parties presence or international intervention in Israel/Palestine and there's a lot of officials who are being mandated to think about this, but not officially to work about it. Because no government would want to say, well this is what we're working on. And it is here where Israelis and Palestinians ask other experts about what they feel the possibilities are and what's not on the agenda, what wouldn't work and what couldn't work. So, in a sense, it enables them to be in both a research environment and a policy think tank environment for the officials to come back and say look, this idea, it might be worth thinking about and also, very physically, it's also a try for Track I people to meet one another. We forget that Track II meetings also give the possibilities of an American or Canadian sitting down with somebody from Australia or somebody from Sweden and having the opportunity to talk to them which is again out of the context of a formal meeting.

Q: What you're talking about is the claim of the Track II community, this value that is offered in so many different respects is so significant in enabling the Track I process to help us face and have the good ideas and the support to move forward and I wonder if you have stories or actually examples of how that value is actually sort of played out in official peace building processes, in other words where the Track II process led directly to some benefit for the Track I process.

A: That type of traction that it is measuring is very very odd ???of what I can say is that many of these Track II meetings are involved in these broader ones in terms of the refugees which is a learning process with maybe the Track I people. You have to know the benefits of one person is often dealing with many issues simultaneously and they're not experts. Why would somebody coming into the French ministry to deal with the Arab/Israeli peace process be an expert on refugees issues? That element of learning, what we learn, and the traction is very hard. I'm putting a lot of international excuses here, but also with the Israeli's and Palestinians where many of the ideas which get fed into and maybe its' that thinking of how you can actually say, "well that came out in Track II and when's it come out and when's it come in anyways is a hard cause to make. But you can say that a certain element of some of the ideas which are now seen as part of the discord between the Israeli/Palestinian issue come directly from many of the ideas first rate in many of these Track II meetings. Some of the even wording of some of the things in the paper of which were on the table at Camp David have strayed from some of the reports out there from some of the meetings from the refugee meetings. There you can see some kind of form of feeding into the process. Many ideas about Jerusalem, just remember that the way negotiation comes forward is that negotiators are now political and they come with some of these ideas and what Track II offers is a bookshelf of ideas and a plan that has already been discussed and told of are non-operational. So it's as much of what might not work, which is as much of what ought to happen.

Q: Well Joel this is really helpful and in terms of the operational, which you've just mentioned, I'm wondering if you could also talk a bit about lessons about how to operationalize official and unofficial interacting in terms of what ways are there communication between Track I and Track II, what ways are there cooperation? What are the challenges there, etc? In terms of the lessons you've had with your extensive experience working in Track II with involvement of Track I. What lessons would you share with us about that interaction of Track I and Track II in terms of the operational, how it really works?

A: I think that what I have to say ??? about that right now would be a ?documentary? discussion with some official about their views of tractability. I would say that what they said a short while ago that there's been a speed change in the approach of officials towards Track II. I can tell you that when I first trained officials in the 1990s, they were very skeptical about what Track II was, what its value was and very much driven by a coach of ownership of the process, of conflict resolution. I still think they can say that officials are still making more open the idea Track II and seeing its value and at certain points, they put in a very limited value for this. And that's something that maybe a search project needs to be really addressed fully. That there maybe a few who come to believe it, but to what extent do they really believe this is a useful process or is it just supplemental to really the process of conflict resolution and negotiation and when the game gets real, then there's no place for Track II and only a place for Track I and there is still I think a great skepticism about its value, a problem about sharing because nobody really wants to reveal. Even in many environments when officials are speaking off the record, they're still on the record, diplomats never are really officially, they're on the record 24/7. And relaying what various histories are and what they're agendas and what they're really interested in and what they want Track II to do, because one of the problems is that Track II can really operate properly they've got to be the servant of nobody and yet for officials to feel that it's of value, it's got to serve them. And serve what they're working on and what they're interested and how they can use this. And one of the problems is that you can say the Track II is here, we're discussing this and you think well, surely that's not much use to us or that not what we ought to be discussing or we're working on something else and we really want to see the discussions going in a different sort of way. So it's a problems operation in the interests of the Track I community and as I said, it is often the case where Track II is often seen as a supplement and an important supplement when the proper official calls but the question that I'm grappling with is what is the role of Track II when Track I negotiation seems to be taking off.

Q: How would you answer that at this stage, even with a preliminary answer?

A: It's very hard because at a certain level on Israeli/Palestinian contact is that if officials are talking and they talk and a politician can now pick up the phone and hope that is really is a passing counterpart, why does he need now to come to a meeting or even to hear from someone who's been involved in a Track II dialog and it is the Israelis and Palestinians who are connected with a certain number of people that feel that this would be an avenue from which you could talk and these are some of the ideas. Yet they say yeah, but I could pick up the phone and have a meeting with the minister tomorrow myself; I don't need this sort of intermediary environment. On the other hand, you may want to listen about what the other needs and what I need. It's about the long term, what are the long term issues and many officials would say to you now, look, our major priority is about immediate mobilization and long term issues and long term areas and why should we come to a meeting about our international trusteeship for example has a possibility and can be very powerful in conflict. But an international trusteeship is a responsible break down of the process, and yet we're involved with trying to stabilize the process and not thinking about ideas that lead to breakdown.

Q: I was wondering if you could, it's so easy from the nature of our questions to get into sort of abstractions and I'm wondering if you could think of a few short stories, one of which just captures successful interaction between official and unofficial processes and the other of which captures the limitations or failures or weaknesses or challenges that are faced in trying to develop those successful interactions. Are there any, all of us sort of collect these stories in our mind, are there any that come to mind for you?

A: I can give you a story which I think encapsulates that. I need a relationship between Track I and Track II. The meeting in the mid-1990s,it just happened by chance that there was an official meeting of the ??Wilta?? group of the multi-lateral talks at the meetings in Greece at the same time there was a Track II meeting on multi-lateral issues and which people are talking about environment and economic development, water, and the whole process of regional cooperation in the Middle east. Now the two meetings happened to be in two hotels across the road from another. And there was literally no interaction between the two. I went across because I was researching the officials on a friendly basis. I wanted to go meet with the officials meeting. One of them said, what's happening across the street is really not interesting. What you're talking about has no bearing on what we're talking about here. And I said to them, look why don't you inform us or the organizers what would be useful to you because none of us have come all this way because we need a weekend away, sit in a hotel and discuss ideas. We're busy people and we want to invest our time and our energy in a constructive environment and if you say that what we're talking about has no value to you whatsoever then tell us of what might be of value. Now there's a situation where you really have officials on one side of the street and non-officials on the others and no real interaction, no feed back.

Q: Did your intervention help?

A: Not immediately, but in that environment there was this huge skepticism of that. The other area of where it doesn't work is the issue of funding. Track II needs funding, it needs to be able to have a continual source of funding versus a one off and then try to get more money because one of the elements of Track II meeting is that people will raise ideas and say look, we really need to talk about this, and we'd like to come back together and be able talk about this and we're ready to talk about this and we'd like to talk about this and we can really do some interesting work and the organizers would say, well we'll see if we can get some money for that. You spend trying to raise the money and you loose the momentum and that's the problem. Where you get the public aside is where you have a meeting where the dialog between the parties of conflict really goes much further than individuals would suspect and there is a common ground to serve them and that moves people forward and that's where you really see where you can move things much further forward. The idea that you could actually envisage a meeting where it various parties would be in the same room thinking about what potential interpretations and models of a compensation regime is part of the Palestinian refugee problem would've been unimaginable had there not been the prior meetings and how that offered the officials some ideas of what can be done and how they can work on it. So you see the element that is positive element of that and it's also positive because it opens portals of communication which otherwise would not be established. Corridors between communities, between Israeli/Palestinians, between Israelis and Jordanians, Egyptians, where they can really sit down and talk about the problems and in a much more open way and in a more interesting element is how much officials now want to come to these meetings to hear. It's not difficult now to get officials to come to the meetings. In that respect, there's a great value in wanting to hear and learn and it's not specific, as I said before it's very hard to say without this, this wouldn't have happened. So of course, there are many meetings that you call Track II which are really quasi-negotiations. Where you actually have Israelis and Palestinians who are connected to policies makers or decisions makers or officials environment and it's a very close environment. One know that either what they are talking about will be actively mandated or will be relayed back. It's brings us to another problem and that is the relationships of individuals with the officials. You have a power 3 with academic and NGOs in their dialog.

Q: Do you have a story that come to mind of particularly successful work across the official/unofficial divide where something important happened because of the connection between official and unofficial actors or between official and unofficial processes like some success stories? Not about Track II work per se but about the relationship between official and unofficial that comes to mind?

A: I'd have to sort of think hard, I can't off the top of my head say that there is a concrete example. This is done and this came then policy per se because it's very hard. There are many examples where many of the ideas which are first discussed in the Track II environment and then come part some policy agenda. The idea of having a report on economic development in the West Bank which was discussed in 1991/1992 that maintains part of, of which the World Bank, choose, both parts were successes, the ideas of what needs to be done of officials and then taking on and doing the work and then it being ready are assigned part of that whole relationship. It's really stepping up ideas that can then later be fed in the process. I'd have to think of ideas but they're clearly so many ideas in the arms control region about the idea that you need to have this type of meeting and then the officials hold that type of meeting being discussed and that the idea first came from a Track II meeting because what Track II can do is that it can throw out loads of ideas and as I said, it's very hard to know which ones get picked up and at what point they get picked up. But if you go to any official and speak with them, they'll say to you, "you know, I read that op-ed article in the New York Times and that really made me think or I had lunch with the writer of that op-ed article and we discussed it and I've written that much more" or "I read an article in Foreign Affairs or in the Washington Quarterly or in Foreign Policy and that made me think" or "I went to the Track II meeting and that idea, that discussion really helped us and moved things forward." Track II is a different environment from just a personal conversation between and official and an academic that might go out for lunch one day.

Q: I think what I was trying to get at in that question was and I know that this is challenging is that a lot of what you're saying is sort of the claim of Track II, which I think we very much believe. It's not that we're skeptics. But how to make that more concrete and more vivid. Not just what is possible, but what has actually happened. And so to the extent of either now or over the next few days if you think of any illustrative examples...

A: I think what you're saying really has to be done in a certain agenda for pushing it forward to actually get people involved in very specific track II projects. To actually know how they can track their own success. And what they've achieved. And I'm not the person to come up with very concrete checkboxes because, if I come across as optimistic or over praise-worthy then I need to sort of re-tone it down because as I said, I still think these Track I people are very very skeptical about the utility but it serves a function in absence of dialogs, it offers ideas but it is often far too abstract for them. It's not too specifically related to their problems of the day. And their very unwilling to share what they want to be done. And also the track II community, they do not want to be the agenda of a government that say's look we want you to discuss this and you have to discuss this on our behalf. And that's why there's a very unusual relationship between Track I and Track II. I remember being in one meeting where the European Commission who was funding many of the meetings turned around and said many of the papers you could choose are of no use to us, and we don't want that type of meeting anymore. And also many of your criticisms we don't like. We haven't funded you to be critical of us or of our process.

Q: We're winding down on time and there's a couple of other questions I'd like to get to, this has been really helpful. Very briefly, if you could give one piece of advice to official actors and one piece of advice to unofficial actors, similar or different regarding how to effectively interact. Do you have a sense of what that would be?

A: I think that the officials process, it has to integrate track II activity fully into their diplomacy, as part of strategy, and it's not that they aren't which may or may not be useful and that when their agenda that they're trying to get diverted to other areas that they draw and then they pick up. That needs to be much more open and much more sharing, a much more commitment of funding. Funding is very hard to procure because it comes through various bureaucratic competing interests. SO that if many of the criticisms of which I think you'll hear from of Track I officials is that they've got to be much more clearer and confidant in the process. The second problem in Track I is that if the money comes from a government organization and from a government it does create the problem of what if the Track II people do things which are against the interests of that government, or goes against what the government sees as being wrong or even hurting its interests. One of the big problems of the refugee problem is that the money did come from the Canadian government even though the organizers were not Canadian organizers, not Canadian citizens. They were always regarded and counted as a process and ownership of ??? and the Canadian government also had some form of ownership as well and wouldn't want to steal from it which might be counter-productive. And that's one of the big questions, how does an official regard something being counter-productive rather than productive. It's far more non on/off valves by Track I.

For Track II, I think the Track II people are aware of their limitations of what they can do. Sometimes, because we conceive things and we can reach out and we can have conversations and we can break barriers. The Track II community needs to somehow take on the idea of being quasi negotiators, if that's the route we take to peace tomorrow and we have to view the question of where we're having Track II meetings, is that you only have people in there who are prepared to accept what the agenda is. That was a real problem of what you would be called the spoilers or people who don't share the agenda but are apart of the process. You don't want to invite somebody to a Track II meeting who's going to be negative or critical on every single discussion or be the spoiler. What happens to that person is that they're not coming again or say we're not inviting that person or htat group because we spent a day and a half and we went nowhere, we got nothing because that person was completely destructive and wasn't playing the game and we don't need dissonant voices. That's a problem for the Track II environment. You need a dissenter or else we could make peace tomorrow because we all agree with one another. Well conflict resolution is actually about bringing people who actually disagree with one another fundamentally.