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Seamans: Proximity Talks

05/26/10 7:55AM By Bill Seamans
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(HOST) A new peace initiative is under way in the  Middle East, but to commentator Bill Seamans, it sounds quite a bit like diplomatic déjà vu.

(SEAMANS) The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are locked in the familiar rhetoric of stalemate.  It's the pseudo-success jargon of diplomats with years of practice using credible words to say nothing - convincingly.  You probably have heard recently about the new Middle East so-called "proximity talks" - that's the latest positive spin from the State Department telling us that the Israelis and Palestinians will continue their peace talks - but not face-to-face - rather from separate locations close to each other, but they did not say how close.

The effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together is in fact historic diplomatic theater.  Remember how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger launched his famous "shuttle diplomacy" flying back and fourth between Arab and Israeli capitals to keep the peace talks alive?

But that was not new.  The first time Americans were really made aware of the difficulties solving the Middle East dispute dates back to April 26, 1988 when Ted Koppel's ABC Nightline program broadcast the first  face-to-face public dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.  It was a "town meeting" in Jerusalem, not an official peace talk.  It happened early in the "peace process" and brought then little-known Palestinians such as Hanan Ashrawi onto the same stage with both hard-line and pro-peace members of the Israel parliament.  It took months to persuade the Palestinians to participate.  Ted Koppel pressed his Arab diplomatic sources in Washington and as the ABC News producer on the scene, I talked on the quiet private coffee-cup level with Arab leaders in Jerusalem and Gaza without whose assent no Palestinian would dare appear for fear of his life.

Finally, after many nerve-racking "offs-and-ons" and "maybe's"  they agreed but refused to appear on the same stage as the Israelis.  Thus the first of the Proximity Talks was born - that is, created in the Arabic manner: we set up a little foot-high garden picket fence running down the middle of the stage separating the two groups. Thus the Palestinians could show the people back home that they were symbolically, at least, not on the same stage as the Israelis.  Also, they avoided looking at the Israelis and addressed their remarks to the audience in the theater.  In their minds, they were there for the Western audience, but not there for the Arab world.

Ted's Nightline program usually ran an hour from 11:30 to 12:30 midnight  but for the first time stripped of diplomatic jargon, the exchange was so riveting and revealing of the profound conflicting reasons and emotions bearing on any hopes for peace that ABC News President Roone Arledge told Ted Koppel to keep going as long as the town meeting drama held up.  We stayed on the air until 3:30 in the morning.

 So as far as Proximity Talks are concerned, we can honestly say, "Been there, done that!"
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