Byline: Dan Ephron
Peace summits like the one President Obama hosted for Israeli and Arab leaders last week serve an important purpose: they bestow the prestige and power of the White House on a process that has sputtered for years. But rarely have big public summits led to peace agreements in the Middle East. More often, deals (or their main principles) are hashed out in total secrecy by trusted emissaries.
Take the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. It began with secret meetings in Morocco, where the Egyptian side learned for the first time that Israel was ready to cede all of Sinai. Likewise, the framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993 followed months of undisclosed talks in Oslo. A year later the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, too, was drafted mostly out of view of the world's prying eyes.
The secrecy allows vulnerable politicians to explore sensitive topics without worrying that the negotiating process itself will jeopardize their political standing, which probably explains why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried several times during the past year to interest Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a back channel, according to an official who worked alongside Netanyahu for much of his current term. …