Humanly impoverishing", is how Palestinian intellectual Edward Said once described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reflecting the despair with which many view the century-old struggle between two victimized and historically oppressed peoples over one tiny piece of coveted land.1

The story of the South African transformation, by contrast, is "humanly enriching" to most observers. In 1994, this African nation overcame centuries of racial domination and strife to elect a new government on the basis of one person, one vote democracy. Its new constitution, passed in 1996, provided a bill of rights more thorough than any other in the world. And despite the enduring challenges that South Africa faces - unemployment, HIV/AIDS, and crime - the country remains a potent symbol of both freedom and forgiveness.

As recently as 1990, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the South African struggle, and the "troubles" in Northern Ireland were spoken of as equally irresolvable dilemmas. The end of the Cold War brought the softening of old antagonisms and inspired renewed efforts at peacemaking in all three cases. But while South Africa made the transition to democracy, and Northern Ireland stabilized somewhat, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians eventually collapsed into violence.

Troubled Comparisons

Unfortunately, most comparisons between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the others have been extremely selective and highly partisan. This has even been true among observers in South Africa and Northern Ireland, who might have been expected to offer valuable insights from their own experiences but were instead seduced by the potent symbolism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and seized on it to express enduring local passions. At the UN World Conference Against Racism in August 2001 in South Africa, some delegates equated Israel with apartheid South Africa - a comparison that Israeli peace advocate Yossi Beilin rightly condemned as a distortion of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and South African history.2

In Northern Ireland, republican sympathizers hoisted Palestinian flags, while the Israeli Star of David appeared, incongruously, in Protestant neighborhoods.3 Instead of self-serving and superficial comparisons that merely superimpose one conflict atop another, comparisons are needed that look specifically, and carefully, at the negotiating processes themselves.

Examining the Processes

One difference immediately apparent between the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the others is that it involves the partition of territory. In South Africa, the idea of partition drew active support from a few groups but was eventually banished to the margins by the campaign for a unitary state. In Northern Ireland, partition never drew serious consideration, and a binational arrangement was devised as the best way to manage two sharply opposed national visions.

There is no clear pattern here. The unitary state was part of the solution in South Africa but part of the problem in Northern Ireland. The mere fact that partition was central should not, by itself, have doomed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The partition of Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s, for example, occurred peacefully and by mutual consent, despite many decades of shared history and the relative fragility of the Slovak economy and institutions.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been complicated by religious differences that simply do not exist in South Africa on the same scale. But Northern Ireland's conflict is also a religious one - no less bitter for being a fight among Christians - and yet it has proved manageable. And the cultural differences that South Africa has been able to overcome are no less stark than those that exist in the Middle East. Clearly, some other feature of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process must be to blame.

Lack of Shared, Public Negotiating Institutions

The key difference lay in the institutional structure of the Oslo peace process, inaugurated in 1993 with the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn. Oslo was designed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gradually, through a series of interim stages. The idea was to use each stage to build confidence and cooperation before moving on to the next.

The negotiations were handled by a diplomatic elite; most of the bargaining was done in top-secret, back-channel talks. The hope was that the trust that slowly developed in this small inner circle would eventually radiate outwards to the rest of Israeli and Palestinian society. Unlike the negotiations in South Africa and Northern Ireland, the Oslo process never created shared, public negotiating institutions composed of representatives from the various parties on both sides.

In South Africa, the government and eighteen other political parties came together in 1991 to form the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), in which they publicly formalized negotiations that had previously only taken place at the highest level. In Northern Ireland, the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was created in 1994 and the Northern Ireland Forum in 1996, until finally the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided for a 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast.

In many ways, these institutions were failures. The CODESA talks in South Africa collapsed, were reconstituted, and collapsed again; the Belfast Assembly continues to lurch from one crisis to the next. But the public negotiating forums in South Africa and Northern Ireland helped the peace process achieve a kind of permanence. Because public representatives of the various communities were involved in these institutions, ordinary people were included in the negotiations in an indirect and sometimes direct way. This gave the peace process life beyond the formal institutions themselves.

Crucially, by excluding groups that refused to abandon armed struggle, the public negotiating forums in South Africa and Northern Ireland helped to marginalize extremist organizations. Boundaries were set around the methods of political action that would be considered legitimate, and violence was officially and publicly rejected by a broad array of groups. That is at least partly why the repeated collapse of negotiations in South Africa and Northern Ireland did not precipitate a return to armed struggle.

The public negotiating institutions did not resolve the fundamental differences between the parties, nor did they solve many of the technical difficulties that arose. Back-channel diplomacy was still necessary to secure the final agreements. But the public forums helped the peace process win the support and involvement of the vast majority of ordinary people on all sides, and therefore provided a political environment in which negotiated agreements could survive setbacks.

Oslo's Backward Order

The need for shared institutions was foreseen by the architects of the Oslo process. They realized that cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians would have to continue even after a "permanent" partition settlement was reached, possibly in the form of a political confederation like that of the Benelux nations in Europe. The two societies were too entwined - socially, geographically, and economically - to be totally separated.

The mistake in Oslo was that the creation of shared institutions was left to the end of the process instead of being taken up at the beginning. This was only partly because Oslo was concerned with territorial partition and the creation of symbols of Palestinian sovereignty. More importantly, the Oslo process reflected the pervasive Third Way political philosophy of the 1990s, which was optimistic about peace and prosperity but skeptical about the ability of government bodies and institutions to achieve these goals. Israeli doves like Shimon Peres pursued the idea that while the primary obstacles to peace were political, the primary vehicle of peace would be regional economic development. The emphasis in Oslo was on voluntary cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, not the creation of shared institutions.

Whatever the merits of Third Way ideas in other contexts, they failed in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Seven years of diplomacy among a political elite, a handful of joint voluntary projects, and strained coordination between security forces failed to change the adversarial relationship between the two societies. Peace was never represented by a public institution and therefore was never a political reality, much less a social one.

Political Instability

There was a great deal of hope, at times, but support for the Oslo process declined steadily on both sides. This was especially dangerous for the survival of negotiations given the inherent instability of both the Israeli and Palestinian political systems.

The new Palestinian Authority was at times autocratic and at times anarchic, alternately repressing and coddling extremist factions. And it was governed, above all, by PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's "anti-institutional, impulsive decision-making style."4 Militant, anti-Israel radicalism was virtually the only form of opposition politics, and violent groups gained support as public protest against PA corruption and mismanagement grew.

As for the Israeli parliamentary system, it has long been prone to the repeated collapse of governments because no party has been able to win an outright majority of seats in recent years. To form a government, the leading party must form a coalition with one or more smaller parties, which may then wield disproportionate power because they can force new elections by defecting. The departure of religious parties from the Barak government, for example, precipitated the elections of 2001, which in turn halted ongoing peace talks and brought Ariel Sharon to power.

Confrontation with the enemy has, until now, been the only cohesive political force in both societies. It is telling that the first unity government in Israel in almost a decade was only formed once the new Palestinian uprising had begun. And it was ironic that only the repeated Israeli sieges of Arafat's Ramallah headquarters aroused a sense of unity around him.

When problems arose, Israeli and Palestinian moderates had difficulty encouraging public support for the Oslo process. Peace advocates on both sides often wasted considerable energy sniping at their respective governments and at each other. If a public, multi-party dialogue had existed from the beginning, the moderates from both sides might have joined together in an alliance or coalition. Instead they, like everyone else, were left out of the process. Without public, institutionalized, multi-party dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, peace will not filter down to the grass-roots level. It will be something that is merely held in place by external powers, like the perforated calm enforced under the British Mandate.

Helping Peace Go Public

The peace process needs to "go public" through the creation of a multi-party "Israeli-Palestinian Forum" for negotiations and deliberations. Elections for the joint forum should be held throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories on a one person, one vote basis and monitored by international observers. No party that has not renounced violence should be allowed to participate. Once constituted, the Israeli-Palestinian Forum could be chaired jointly by representatives from both sides of the Green Line. Its responsibilities should initially be limited to debating peace proposals and their discussing implementation, but it could one day serve as the institutional basis for a "truth and reconciliation" process similar to those carried out in South Africa and elsewhere.

Despite the pressing need for a broader regional peace, participation in a joint, public forum should be limited to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Israel's conflicts with its other Arab nations do not involve intermingled civilian populations or competing national visions to the same extent, and would be better handled through diplomacy on an official level. Moreover, history suggests that when every country in the region is invited to the table - as at the 1991 Madrid conference, organized by President George H. W. Bush - the Arab states goad each other into hard-line positions and the Israelis retreat into a defensive crouch. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process should not be rigidly separated from other negotiations but it should also have a life of its own.

An Israeli-Palestinian Forum would not be the only space for negotiations and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. It need not exercise sovereign powers, and it need not be a backdoor entrance for binationalism. The important point is that even if it is little more than a debating society, as the Northern Ireland Forum was, it will help discourage violence and encourage cooperation.


Democracy cannot solve every problem. Credibility and trust are just as important. But how is that trust to be established? The creation of public, multi-party negotiating institutions, made up of representatives elected by the Israeli and Palestinian people, would play an important role. It is an approach that has worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Though it has been completely overlooked in the Middle East, it may well be the key to success. The "humanly enriching" South African experience teaches that no oppressed people can gain liberation unless it is also committed to reconciliation. Equally, it shows that no nation can achieve peace and harmony until political and social injustices are redressed. It warns that trust cannot be cultivated if it is left to top-secret meetings between elite emissaries, and that international pressure alone will not build local support for an agreement. Only if the peace process goes public will the public embrace peace.

1 Said, Edward. "Palestinians must take moral high ground." Sunday Independent. Oct 28, 2001.
2 Beilin, Yossi, qtd. in Pollak, Joel. "The Long Walk to Peace." The Big Issue (South Africa) November 2001. 20-21.
3 Addley, Esther. "Riot City." The Guardian June 11, 2002. URL:,4273,4431040,00.html
4 Rubin, Barry. The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building. Cambridge, Masschusetts: Harvard UP, 1999.