As the Israeli-Palestinian talks stall, the United States should consider this opportunity to reassess the negotiation process more broadly. Previous talks have suffered from lack of both transparency and inclusiveness: for most of the past 20 years, an extremely small group of high-level political leaders has met behind closed doors, rarely sharing information with or seeking input from their stakeholders. If negotiators are serious about lasting peace, they need to engage those who matter most – their people, and women in particular, who feel little ownership over the talks specifically because they are rarely consulted.
In August we returned from a trip to Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where we worked with exceptional female leaders to create recommendations for improving Israeli-Palestinian talks. At that time, US President Barack Obama was about to secure commitments for a new round of negotiations. Yet rooms full of smart leaders who want peace knew nothing about their representatives' positions or plans. Because of this secrecy, a fog of pessimism encircled the meetings. That pessimism persists.
The best way to give affected populations more ownership of the process is to open the talks to women. Research shows that when women are included in negotiations, they regularly raise key issues otherwise ignored by male negotiators, such as security on the ground, long-term reconciliation and human rights. Women often facilitate cross-conflict talks on the margins of formal negotiations that cultivate public investment in negotiations. When formally involved, women often help talks gain traction.
George Mitchell, US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, saw the value a critical mass of women adds when he mediated an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. There, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, a Protestant-Catholic women's party, ensured that talks promoted reconciliation, recognised the needs of victims and youth, and secured human rights for prisoners. Additionally, they created a structure for continued consultation with civil society and built bridges among negotiating parties.
In other peace talks, too, women's inclusion has paid dividends. In Guatemala's negotiations, women ensured a balance of police and civilian power and preserved labour and indigenous rights while promoting dialogue and tolerance. In Darfur's negotiations, women focused attention on civilian protection and women's rights.
Female civil society leaders in Israel and Palestine have pointed out that had they been consulted when certain areas were being delineated as the Oslo Accords – the framework for future negotiations between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – specified, they would have suggested slight changes to the way the lines were drawn that could have greatly improved access to land and water and better maintained the integrity of communities. Wisely, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced that, consistent with Israeli law mandating women's inclusion, the Israeli delegation will include a woman.
This is a step toward more inclusive processes, but only a first step. The Palestinian negotiating team included several women during the first rounds of negotiations at the Madrid conference and talks in Washington, DC in 1991, and they did have an influence, but the delegation no longer has women at the highest levels.
Proponents of secret negotiations argue that sharing information can give spoilers opportunities or decrease trust between negotiating parties. Ironically, the opposite more often proves true: transparency can fuel the forces for peaceful resolution of conflict and help push warring parties toward resolution. Research by Darren Kew, Associate Professor of Dispute Resolution at University of Massachusetts Boston and Anthony Wanis-St. John, Assistant Professor in the International Peace and Conflict Resolution programme at American University, shows a direct correlation between the inclusiveness of peace processes and the likelihood that agreements endure.
The host of upcoming negotiations, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, clearly understands the need for more inclusive peace building. In August 2009, she argued that "so-called women's issues are stability issues, security issues, equity issues."
Building on their personal experience, Clinton and Mitchell should lead the push to involve women and civil society in the Middle East peace process by: soliciting topics for the negotiating agenda from civil society and women; organising public consultations with women and civil society organisations to hear their perspectives on the core issues; creating a formal consultative mechanism for civil society groups to feed input indirectly into negotiations; appointing gender advisers or civil society liaisons to assist official delegations; and offering negotiating teams additional seats at talks if women are added.
Polls show that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are tired of war and want peace. It's time to use negotiations to leverage and strengthen that will. It's time to re-envision the process so that the talks are transformative. That way, when we next travel to the Middle East, we will see infectious optimism instead of pessimism, and women in both countries fostering broad public support for successful, inclusive negotiations.
* Carla Koppell is Director of The Institute for Inclusive Security and the Washington, DC office of Hunt Alternatives Fund (www.huntalternatives.org). Rebecca Miller is Senior Programme Specialist at The Institute for Inclusive Security. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Institute for Inclusive Security. An earlier version of this article can be found at www.inclusivesecurity.org.