The significance of the Geneva Accord is that it has brought Palestinians and Israelis back to the political track, securing the continuity of the process that began with the Madrid peace conference. In a way, too, it has further narrowed the gaps between the two sides on the substantial issues of the conflict such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security.
While there are some that have dismissed the plan after its flat rejection by the Israeli government, the fact that the government of Israel stands vociferously opposed to the accord actually means little. No sensible politician believes that the political process can possibly continue under the current Israeli right wing leadership. This government comes from an ideological and strategic position that is completely contrary to all of the peace process terms of reference, especially international law. Therefore, if the peace process is to progress in official channels, we will have to wait for the arrival of a government in Israel that is not hostile in principle to the basic tenets of any peace process that has the hopes of succeeding, the most important of these tenets being ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
One might even go further and hold up the current Israeli government position against the Geneva Accord as proof that the Israeli government is elevating its narrow ideological interests above the interests of the Israeli people. Even when the Palestinians who negotiated this document showed flexibility over the sticky resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue, still the Israeli government turned up its nose. Indeed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his ideological bedfellows will do their best to avoid giving up their control over the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip because they believe not that this land is occupied but, as Sharon put it bluntly not long ago, it is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people. In short, that view contradicts the aims of any peace process based on international legality and supported by the international community.
The Geneva Accord, which should be perceived as another step in an ongoing political process aimed at reaching an agreement between the official representatives of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, has finally brought back discussion and debate as to the substance of the conflict. For too long, the two sides have labored in ongoing hypocrisy over logistic, security and administrative issues. While these may be important, their negotiation consumes the parties and prevents them from discussing the political issues that require debate in order to narrow the gaps between the two sides. Indeed, this debate is the only way to move towards peace. It is important that the peace camps in Israel and Palestine use the Geneva process and document to regroup, because the future compromise between the different groups on the two sides should be based on these substantially improved positions.
That is not to say that these improvements have reached the point of perfection. The actual text requires more tweaking and work, however, as those efforts are pursued, there is no doubt that when the two official governments sit for final status negotiations, they will benefit greatly from the ideas embodied in the Geneva Accord. All that is required is the closing of some holes and finalizing of some important contours before the accord and all it represents can be actualized.
Ghassan Khatib was recently minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet. He has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
The Geneva Accord between Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo and their colleagues signals the public on both sides that peace is possible. It is a courageous act, and a positive major event in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On the Israeli side it might constitute at least a partial turning point in the sad fortunes of the political left. The Palestinian moderate camp, too, now has ammunition for persuading the public that peace is possible--if Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat allows it to happen.
One key difficulty with what we have been shown of the Geneva agreement (note that important annexes and entire clauses on key issues like water are missing) is not with the idea, but with the premises, at least from the Israeli standpoint. Beilin and his team make no secret of their strategy of picking up where the Taba talks of January 2001 left off. As an apparent consequence, the agreement seems to ignore too many of the lessons that should have been drawn from the tragic events of the past three years. The results are evident in the clauses of the agreement that deal with territory, security, refugees and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state:
- Beilin is right not to annex settlements, even large ones like Ariel, if annexation would render them hard to defend. But the result is the evacuation of over 100,000 settlers, whereas at Camp David/Taba the agreed premise was the evacuation of around 60,000. What conceivable Israeli government will evacuate over 100,000? Better to annex as many settlements as possible, rather than as few as possible, with sufficient territory to defend them, and at least examine the option of compensating the Palestinian state (generously, in territorial terms) with Israeli Arab towns in the Triangle and Wadi Ara areas, thereby also addressing Israel's long term demographic needs and confronting the ongoing radicalization of Israeli Arab society. The parties never discussed this option.
- As reflected in the Geneva agreements, Israel's security demands for a short-term military presence in the Jordan Valley and a virtual or invisible presence at border crossings are no more exacting than they were three years ago. Yet the past three years have dramatically demonstrated Palestinian intentions and capabilities for smuggling in and home-producing weaponry for use against Israel. The upshot should have been a dramatically tougher Israeli position on these security issues. Instead it is an expanded international presence.
- While Geneva is happily devoid of any mention of the right of return or the origins of the refugee issue, it still does not reflect the near consensus in Israel that one key lesson of the past three years is to avoid absorbing any refugees at all or in any way even implying recognition of the right of return. Palestinians will almost certainly interpret Beilin's acceptance of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 and his readiness to absorb refugees (a process no longer termed "family reunification", with numbers to be determined at least partially not by Israel but through a link to the willingness of third countries like Australia to absorb refugees) as acknowledgment of the right of return--thereby leaving open the door for future attempts to raise the issue and "Palestinize" Israel. True, this agreement does end Palestinian refugee status and rules out any further claims. But the Ayalon-Nusseibeh formulation that "Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine" is far preferable from this standpoint. And where in Geneva are the provisions for Jewish refugees from Arab states that were agreed on at Camp David?
- This brings us to the issue of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state--a key demand that has been reinforced over the past three years by the perception that the Palestinian leadership's inability to mouth this phrase is linked to its pursuit of a terrorist agenda and its rejection of the two state peace option. On the one hand, according to Geneva, "this agreement marks the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood..." Yet on the other, "The Parties recognize Palestine and Israel as the homelands of their respective peoples." In other words, even in this agreement the Palestinians do not quite recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, since Israel's "people" could in Palestinian eyes be Palestinians and the Jews' right to statehood does not necessarily apply to the territory of Israel. If this sounds like quibbling, it seems clear that the parties to Geneva quibbled over the wording regarding this and the refugee issue at considerable length, and that the Palestinian side emerged with wording that does not necessarily close its "Israel file" for the future. Again, compare Nusseibeh-Ayalon: "Israel is the only state of the Jewish people."
At the conceptual level, Geneva is based on an Israeli assumption that the parties are capable of delivering and are likely to produce leaders interested in an agreement like this, which is intended to ensure Israel's long term survival as a Jewish and democratic state. Otherwise, why bother? Despite my objections, if the agreement were presented to me on a take-it-or-leave-it basis in a national referendum, I would vote for it--because it is a good agreement, and because nearly any agreement is better than the future that confronts us: the virtual collapse of the two state solution and the South Africanization of our conflict. Yet in our reality of disastrous leadership and prolonged conflict, no such referendum is likely.
So how do we keep off this disastrous slippery slope of geography (settlements) and demography? With all due respect to the Geneva Accord, we had best also invest our energies in alternative ways, like unilateral withdrawal.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Achieving our fundamental aspirations
an interview with Yasser Abed Rabbo
bitterlemons: Why did you decide to embark on these negotiations?
Abed Rabbo: After the Taba negotiations, we were very close to reaching an agreement, but the change in the Israeli government after the elections stopped everything. Therefore, we began to think that this historic progress that we had made in the previous negotiations should be finalized. We started to examine which issues at Taba had not been finalized, and whose resolution would allow us to complete final status negotiations without leaving anything out and without any ambiguity.
This was the understanding between the Israeli side and us. However, as time passed, other priorities evolved. The Israeli representatives and their political tendencies that were involved demonstrated that this process was special in that it broke the embargo that [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon had imposed.
bitterlemons: What were the most difficult areas of debate?
Abed Rabbo: I cannot specify one issue. The main thing was to find a balance between the two positions so that what would be introduced to the two publics would present a win-win situation. This doesn't mean that all peace aspirations would be met, but that the basic ones would be met: [essentially], to let Israelis live without any fear or without intervention, and to enable the Palestinian people to have their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital and also to put an end to anything that could lead to future hostilities.
So, we decided that the Wailing Wall would be under Israeli sovereignty, the Haram al Sharif would be under Palestinian sovereignty and East Jerusalem would be divided between the two states, with part of the city under Palestinian sovereignty with the exception of the Jewish quarter which would be under Israeli sovereignty, and a special regime [comprising] international supervision and guaranteeing freedom of worship.
bitterlemons: In some aspects, the agreement holds on to ideas that have proven to fail, such as, for example, the period of time in which Israel maintains control over borders and crucial passageways. How are you convinced that Israel will act in good faith?
Abed Rabbo: This is not true. The borders will be controlled by international forces; a small Israeli contingent will be under the leadership of the international forces. For a very limited period of time, the Israelis will remain on the Palestinian borders, but the border is solely under Palestinian sovereignty and responsibility is solely international for all the borders with Israel, Egypt and Jordan. The passageway [between Gaza and the West Bank] will be Israeli, under the control of the Palestinians. Palestinian police will patrol this passage and it will be open 24 hours, seven days a week and twelve months a year.
bitterlemons: Did you and Yossi Beilin discuss requiring an official Israeli apology or acknowledgement of the refugee problem?
Abed Rabbo: We tried hard to solve this problem and the compromise we reached was to commemorate and respect the 1948 locations [the sites of former Palestinian villages]. This is quite clear in the agreement. I cannot say that they were ready to accept all of our demands in this direction.
bitterlemons: Has the United States administration responded to the accord?
Abed Rabbo: We are in contact with the Americans. They responded in the beginning that they welcome an initiative that will lead to peace. Now we are in the process of explaining to them that this [document] is not a substitute for the roadmap; on the contrary, it enhances the roadmap because it fills the hole left in the roadmap concerning a just, comprehensive solution.
bitterlemons: There are those on the Palestinian side who are dismissing this agreement because it comes at a time when the Israeli government is not ideologically predisposed to accept it. Is the agreement just a PR exercise?
Abed Rabbo: I think it is not only a public relations exercise--it is a very direct political message to both publics that there is a possible leadership and there is a possible solution at a time when extremists are trying to justify the continuation of this war, saying that there are no partners and there is no solution.
Notice that the main attack (besides that of Ariel Sharon) against the agreement came from [former Prime Minister Ehud] Barak. This at least embarrasses--if not completely crushes--his claims that he was generous at Camp David and that the Palestinians rejected his offer. It shows that they didn't offer the minimum of what was required at Camp David, that [the talks] were intentionally ambiguous and that he collaborated with Sharon to give him political cover for his campaign against the Palestinian people, claiming that there was no Palestinian partner.
Now there is a solution and a partnership and that is why Barak and Sharon are attacking this agreement and trying to undermine the bid between the Israeli peace camp and us to move our nations towards a solution and away from this daily destruction.
-Published 27/10/03 ©bitterlemons.org
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee, attended the Madrid Peace talks in 1991. He later served as a senior member of the Palestinian negotiation team in all major negotiations, including those conducted at Camp David (2000) and Taba (2001).
On a winter day in February 2001, a few days after Ehud Barak's defeat in the special elections for prime minister, I met with Yasser Abed Rabbo, Palestinian minister for culture and information, in the al Quds editorial offices in Jerusalem's Atarot industrial park. This was a continuation of a corridor discussion between us during the Taba negotiations of January that year.
Abed Rabbo was convinced that the primary mistake at the Camp David summit, where he also participated, was to raise the Jerusalem question at the beginning of the negotiations, rather than at the end. As for Taba, he felt that if only we had had a few more weeks, we could have completed the framework agreement for peace.
We agreed to try and continue the effort that began at Taba--this time informally, without obligating anyone but ourselves. We wanted to prove to ourselves that a final agreement was feasible, to prove to the peace camps on both sides that there is a partner and a plan. Against a backdrop of despair, lack of faith and growing violence, we believed that a model permanent agreement could revitalize the Israeli peace camp (which had not even bothered to participate in the elections a few days earlier) as well as the somnolent Palestinian peace camp.
We did not think it would take so long. Technical difficulties, primarily prohibitions on Palestinians entering Israel and Israelis entering areas A, and political circumstances--Palestinian governmental crises and Israeli elections--delayed completion of the project. Important coalitions were built on both sides: economists, intellectuals and Fatah activists on the Palestinian side, and former security officials, party representatives from the center and left, intellectuals and industrialists on the Israeli side.
The Taba discussions lasted seven days. The eighth day lasted three years. It ended in Jordan on October 12 of this year, with the signing of a letter to Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, to which was attached the agreed version of the draft agreement.
The foundation of our talks was the Clinton Plan, which was accepted by both sides, with reservations, in December 2000. Our basic assumption was that "god is in the details," and that mere agreements in principle are not persuasive with regard to the capacity to get to the root of solutions. The primary package deal or trade-off was an Israeli concession regarding Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Harem al Sharif, coupled with a perpetual international presence there, in return for leaving the determination regarding acceptance of Palestinian refugees to a sovereign Israeli decision.
We did not dwell on "narratives", mutual recriminations and assigning responsibility for the past. We did not ask one another to forsake dreams. We sufficed with solutions. All the question marks, all the historical quarrels, all the United Nations decisions that we wasted long years interpreting in our different ways--all these are answered, resolved, and realized in the agreement we reached. It is not an easy agreement for either side, but never has a better one been achieved. It is offered to the decision makers on both sides; they can, if they so desire, integrate it as phase III of the roadmap, i.e., as the final status agreement that is to be achieved by 2005.
If there is broad support among both publics for the agreement we reached, their respective leaderships will not be able to ignore what we have done. Hence we are initiating a broad information campaign: an agreement is possible; the ongoing situation of terrorism and retribution exacts a heavy and unnecessary price from both sides and is pointless; Israeli-Palestinian peace will bring with it economic salvation for both peoples; it will ensure that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state that does not rule over another people, and will enable the Palestinians to exercise their right to self determination.
A continuation of Israel's present policy, whereby dialogue is forbidden until terrorism ends, awards a prize to terrorists who have no interest in peace. Three years after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised security and peace--and gave us less peace and less security--the time has come to try a different way: the Geneva Accord offers the only practical alternative.
Yossi Beilin, the initiator of the Oslo peace process, served as a government minister under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.
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