Track-II talks are "discussions by non-officials of conflicting parties in an attempt to clarify outstanding disputes and to explore the options for resolving them in settings or circumstances that are less sensitive than those associated with official negotiations." That is the definition offered by the two Palestinian and two Israeli authors, each a leading analyst and a long-time participant in such talks. The quartet of authors distinguishes track-II talks both from academic conferences and from secret diplomacy. They characterize as "soft" those talks aimed at familiarizing the participants with each other and their views while "hard" talks are to help initiate negotiations on political agreements between governments.
The authors provide a wealth of information not available elsewhere about such contacts over the years. After describing quite extensive secret contacts from 1967 to 1991, they present six cases studies from the 1990s, several of which were at the center of diplomatic breakthroughs (the Oslo accords) or not (the 1992-94 Israeli-Syrian discussions). They then offer a detailed analysis of how well track-II talks served various functions, such as gaining recognition (e.g., for Palestinians qua Palestinians), sending messages, influencing third parties, and advancing tactical interests, with a frank evaluation of the possible pitfalls, such as opportunities for misperception and unintended consequences.
They close with an excellent chapter on lessons learned, full of practical advice for those considering organizing track-II talks about any conflict in the world. Points covered include devising rules of engagement, clarifying the purpose of the exercise, generating the group dynamic, and choosing among "moderate" and "hard-line" participants. The "most crucial and decisive element," they find, is the relationship between track-II participants and their national leaderships, combining access and mutual trust with maintaining a distance.
While the authors are at their best on how to conduct track-II talks, they are much weaker on the question of whether all such exercises are worthwhile. It sometimes happens that the focus on dialogue and engagement becomes an end in itself, undercutting the pursuit of national interest and a sober evaluation of whether the parties will in fact carry out agreements reached. That is at least arguably what happened with the Oslo process.