“The Multilateral Arab-Israeli Talks: A Primer,”
by Joel Peters

 

Background:

28 January 2000—The Arab-Israeli peace process is known primarily for bilateral negotiations between the immediate parties to the conflict. Yet the 1991 Madrid Conference also established a framework for multilateral talks among Israel and the Arab states to discuss economic, social and environmental issues essential to long-term regional development and security.

Because of an impasse in the negotiations over the further redeployment of Israeli troops from Hebron at the end of 1996, these talks were suspended, and, since that point, the multilateral talks effectively disappeared from the agenda of the peace process. More recently, Egypt insisted that the multilateral track remain suspended until Israeli-Syrian talks resumed. None of the five working groups has met in a full plenary session since May 1996, although some activities have taken place since then. The multilateral talks are now scheduled to resume in Moscow on February 1.


The Structure of the Multilateral Talks:

The talks are comprised of five working groups: Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS); Regional and Economic Development (REDWG); Refugees; Water Resources; and the Environment.

At Madrid in 1991, the conflict’s immediate protagonists (Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians) were invited to participate, as were some Arabian Peninsula states (Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Yemen), some Maghreb states (Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania), and a host of extra-regional participants (the European Union, the U.S., Turkey, Canada, Japan, Russia and China). Although invited to attend, Syria and Lebanon have boycotted the talks from the start.

Each working group is chaired by an external power: the U.S. is responsible for ACRS (along with Russia) and for the Water Resources Working Group; the European Union (EU) for REDWG; and Japan and Canada respectively for the Environment and Refugee Working Groups. A Steering Group—comprised of the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, the EU, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia—is responsible for overseeing the activities of the five working groups and for effecting any changes in the structure of the multilateral talks.


Regional and Economic Development:

REDWG is the largest of the five working groups, both in terms of participation and in the number of projects. Its purpose reflects most fully the long-term goal of the multilaterals, namely entwining the region’s states in a new set of mutually beneficial relationships.

In June 1994, REDWG established a monitoring committee to allow the four core regional parties—Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians—to take a more direct role in organizing activities, developing priorities and identifying future projects. Responsibility was divided among four sectoral committees, with Egypt handling work on finance, Israel on trade, Jordan on regional infrastructure, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) on tourism.

The following year, REDWG opened a permanent secretariat in Amman that, in its first year, serviced over 100 meetings. It is still operational today, though in a more limited capacity. The secretariat is the first and only remaining functioning regional institution generated by the Middle East peace process in which Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian officials work together daily.


Water:

The Water Resources Working Group has focused on four areas: data availability, water management and conservation, water supply and new concepts for regional cooperation and management. Although the multilateral talks were formally suspended more than three years ago, the parties have continued to meet informally and have actually widened and intensified the scope of their activities.

At the end of 1996, the group established a new regional desalination research center in Oman, operating in cooperation with Israeli experts. In addition, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian experts have collaborated on a database and computer network related to water issues.


Environment:

The Environment Working Group’s agenda has concentrated on four themes: control of maritime pollution, treatment of waste water, desertification and environmental management. The EU has taken on responsibility for a project on environmental management of the eastern Mediterranean coastal area.

Italy is overseeing work on solid waste management, the U.S. on waste water treatment for small communities, the World Bank on desertification, and Jordan on environmental education. At the plenary meeting held in Bahrain in October 1994, the parties signed an Environmental Code of Conduct for the Middle East. The Code lays out principles and guidelines underlining the relationship between environmental management and security, the transnational nature of these problems, the need for regional cooperation, and the development of joint frameworks to tackle these issues.


Arms Control and Regional Security:

More than any other group, ACRS has been characterized by fundamental disagreements between Israel and the Arab states over priorities and approach. The Arab states, led by Egypt, placed highest priority on eliminating weapons of mass destruction and have sought to put Israel’s nuclear capability on the agenda. Conversely, the Israeli approach has centered on developing confidence-building measures, such as pre-notification of large-scale military exercises, development of hotlines, crisis prevention mechanisms and verification procedures.

The group has divided its work between two separate “baskets.” The “operational basket” deals with a range of military issues and confidence-building measures. The “conceptual basket” addresses long-term objectives of the arms control process and concentrates on establishing a Declaration of Principles on Arms Control and Regional Security. Discussion of the Declaration has been hampered by disagreement about including a statement about weapons of mass destruction.


Refugees:

The Refugee Working Group differs from the other four in that it does not deal with the future relationship between Israel and the Arab world but focuses solely on a key aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict—the Palestinian refugee problem. It has been active in three broad areas: defining the scope of the refugee problem, encouraging dialogue on the issues involved, and mobilizing the resources required to address them.

The following themes have formed the basis of the group’s activities between plenary meetings: database creation and management (Norway); family reunification (France); human resources development, job creation and vocational training (U.S.); public health (Italy); child welfare (Sweden); and economic and social infrastructure (EU). Skirting the highly charged political issues at the heart of the refugee question, and explicitly acknowledging that their activities will not prejudice bilateral “permanent status” negotiations on the refugees, the group has focused on improving the daily lives of Palestinian refugees.


Achievements and Failings:

The main criticism leveled at the multilaterals is that, after nearly eight years of meetings, it is difficult to identify specific successes. Their defenders argue that the talks have offered an alternative diplomatic space to engage in low-risk communication and to develop new forms of cooperation. The multilaterals also became too closely tied to the issue of normalization of relations with Israel. Given this, it is not surprising that this track became hostage to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

 

Joel Peters is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University and Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Reading, UK. This brief is based on his article published in Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 4, December 1999. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund or Palestine Center.

This information first appeared in Information Brief No. 22, 28 January 2000.