Anthony Wanis-St. John knows how Middle East peace talks really work.
His new book, Back Channel Negotiation: Secrecy in the Middle East Peace Process, is based on a decade of research. It details how Palestinian and Israeli leaders engage in two tracks of negotiations—public and secret.
He spoke with American Today about the changes sweeping through the Middle East and how they might impact Palestinians and the peace process with Israel.
American Today: Some analysts have said the uprisings provide another model for change in the Middle East, an alternative to violent overthrows.
Wanis-St. John: It’s new and old, I think. We’ve had mass uprisings against oppressive governments in other parts of the world. In my college days, we talked about the South Africa situation; there was the flight of the Duvaliers from Haiti, the fall of Marcos in the Philippines. At the time we talked about people power and the power of massive numbers of society’s members to change the minds of their leaders. What we’re seeing now in the Arab countries, the North African countries, is a mass discontent that harks back to the people power of the ’80s, but it is also something new for those societies. These are not societies that rebel easily, they like hierarchy, they like central power, they like authority, but they don’t like those things when they’re illegitimate.
AT: Will the upheavals have any effects on the Palestinian elections this fall?
Wanis-St. John: There won’t be a whole lot of direct impact. The example, however, is powerful, and young people around the world, whether they’re in Palestinian territories that are occupied by Israel or they’re in Latin America or in any other part of the world will be saying to themselves, ‘If we express our will, maybe people will listen. And if we do it in an organized and disciplined fashion without weapons we have a lot more credibility.’
AT: Could you talk a bit about the angst, particularly in Israel, surrounding the possible rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Wanis-St. John: All people with very closed and ideological agendas, when they come to power it should be an issue of concern. On the other hand, once they come to power they have to confront the realities of governing. And that almost always has a moderating impact. So the fact of the Muslim Brotherhood being involved in government is not such a big issue . . . It would be nice to see some other sources of political ideas come into the political landscape in Egypt.
AT: There’s a lot of concern in Israel about how its treaties, especially its treaty with Egypt, might be affected by changes in regimes.
Wanis-St. John: International law that most countries claim to abide by makes clear that no new administration can come into any state and set aside the commitments made by the prior governors or presidents or prime ministers of that state in the past. Even when you have a transition from dictatorship to democracy, the democracy has to pay the debts and honor the commitments that were entered into, ostensibly in good faith, by the prior government, even if we don’t like the prior government. So Egypt made a peace treaty with Israel several decades ago, a bilateral peace treaty . . . From the Egyptian point of view the treaty was principally for the purpose of regaining the Sinai, which was under occupation of the Israelis. From the Israeli point of view the treaty was about neutralizing a possible belligerent on their southern border, the most powerful of the Arab neighbors. Those things haven’t changed. The Sinai’s still Egyptian and there’s no reason for Egypt to attack Israel.
AT: How else might Mubarak’s fall affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Wanis-St. John: Egypt was playing a very important role babysitting the Palestinian parties, trying to get them to unify. They were never fully effective at it, but they were effective in getting Hamas to stop firing rockets at the Israelis on several occasions. And then Hamas discovered that it was having to police non-Hamas militants who wanted to launch rockets. So they were beginning to become a more mature governing entity. The interesting thing is whether Egypt will continue to play this role of trying to be a mentor to the Palestinians and help them build a unified government that they need so that they can credibly get a deal going with the Israelis.