JERUSALEM (Jan. 27)
A widely publicized agreement signed this week by prominent members of Israel’s two major parties is the latest indication of an inexorable shift from the political right to the political center. In many ways, the agreement between members of Labor and Likud on issues related to final-status talks with the Palestinians was anti-climactic, coming as it did after the redeployment in Hebron.
The handover earlier this month of most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule was the true watershed, marking the first time that a Likud government transferred land to the Palestinians.
Further, the deal on Hebron, which also included an Israeli commitment to further withdrawals from the West Bank, plays out in practice what the Labor and Likud members were discussing only in theory.
Still, this week’s paper is significant in that it reflects what is widely seen as the national consensus on what is attainable as Israel moves toward a final deal with the Palestinians.
The final-status negotiations, scheduled to resume in March, will tackle a host of thorny issues — including the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood, Jewish settlements, future borders and Palestinian refugees.
Sunday’s signing of the position paper capped more than three months of discussions that were spearheaded by Knesset members Michael Eitan of Likud and Yossi Beilin of Labor.
The paper immediately triggered vigorous criticism within both parties and among their allies.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced the essence of the mixed political reaction to the so-called “Beilin-Eitan Document” by on the one hand welcoming it, but on the other insisting that it does not bind his party or his government.
Netanyahu said he rejected certain sections of the document, implying that it would not be wholly wrong to see the document as something of a trial balloon for future peacemaking efforts, or as the basis for ongoing behind-the-scenes discussions on the possibility of forming a government of national unity.
Even as the sole leader of Israel, Netanyahu clearly wants a broad consensus as he moves toward the final-status talks.
Among the Labor leadership, there was also equivocation, though party leader Shimon Peres offered no public response.
However, former Labor Finance Minister Avraham Shochat said the document was “harmful” for future peacemaking — this despite the fact that he had taken part in much of the dialogue prior to the paper’s publication.
While the areas of agreement signal a shift in thinking in both parties, it is among the Likud where the change appears most radical. Indeed, it seems to reflect a further acquiescence that is slowly but steadily permeating the entire national camp in Israeli politics.
For Eitan and his Likud colleagues, the ground had shifted because of the Israeli-Palestinian accords signed by the previous Labor government. Based on the realities on the ground, they could not continue to call for a Greater Israel when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was holding Cabinet meetings in Ramallah and Hebron.
In that regard, the joint Likud-Labor position paper clearly provides for a border to run through the West Bank.
For his part, Beilin, in comments to a packed meeting of journalists Sunday, maintained that the new document did not in any way contradict the famous “Beilin-Abu-Mazen Accord” that he concluded informally with the second-in-command in the Palestinian hierarchy, Abu-Mazen, late in 1995.
Both that accord and the new document envisage a permanent- status agreement in which Israeli settlements close to the pre-1967 borders are annexed to Israel, leaving a minority of the settlements situated inside Palestinian territory.
For Eitan, the chief significance of the document is tied to the fact that no settlement is to be uprooted under the envisioned permanent-status agreement.
“This is an historic day for the settlers,” Eitan said, noting that for the first time they had won the support of a “national consensus.”
Indeed, the paper’s reference to Jewish settlements signaled that on the left, there is increasing recognition that the approximately 150,000 settlers in the West Bank cannot be abandoned in any workable peace plan.
Among the other major points addressed in the document: Jerusalem: The Beilin-Eitan document calls for Jerusalem in its currently delineated municipal boundaries to remain united under Israeli sovereignty.
It also calls for the Palestinians to have a site outside those boundaries for their capital. Although not explicitly stated, both sides confirm this to mean a site northeast of the current municipal lines.
The document adds that within Jerusalem, the Palestinians are to have “a status that will provide for their participation in responsibility for running their lives in the city.”
Palestinian entity: The two sides could not reach full agreement on this issue and therefore issued separate wording. The Labor side envisages a Palestinian “state.” Likud speaks of “broadened autonomy.”
Whatever its eventual status, members from both parties agreed that this entity would have no army; the Jordan River is to be Israel’s security border; no foreign forces are to be deployed within the entity’s territory; and the entity is not to sign any military pacts with foreign nations.
Jordan Valley: Here again, there were two versions. For Labor, the area is to be a special security zone, with the Israeli army deployed along the Jordan River; for Likud, the valley is to be under full Israeli sovereignty.
The right of return for Palestinian refugees: The document calls for this to be “negotiated in the permanent-status negotiations, with reference to Israel’s overall security considerations.”
The discussions, which began as an academic exercise and soon developed their own political momentum, were initiated by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank headed by Professor Yigal Carmon.
About a dozen Knesset members, half from Likud, half from Labor, participated in weekly discussions at the institute.
Signing with Beilin for Labor were parliamentarians Haim Ramon and Shlomo Ben-Ami.
The conservative Knesset members who signed were Ze’ev Boim, Eliezer Sandberg, Meir Sheetrit and Yehuda Lankri.
Earlier Likud participants in the discussions — such as Naomi Blumenthal and Michael Kleiner — dropped out before the end of the discussions in protest against various provisions of the evolving document that they felt flagrantly contradicted established Likud positions.
On the Labor side, Shochat, Uzi Baram and Ephraim Sneh — all pronounced doves — dropped out before the end, accusing Beilin of selling out Labor’s principled positions in return for a spurious consensus.
Political observers, however, saw the three men’s departure as prompted more by internal Labor politics — and the struggle for the party’s future leadership — than by principle.
This consensus, of course, apart from the discord it has provoked within the Zionist parties, is not shared by Israel’s Arab politicians.
Knesset member Toufik Ktib of the Arab Democratic Party-United Arab List said, “It may bring peace between Labor and Likud, but it won’t bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
And Dr. Ahmed Tibi, the Israeli Arab activist who is a leading Arafat adviser, said the Palestinians would not accept the idea that the settlements must stay in place after peace.
Nor would they accept that Arab Jerusalem be permanently annexed to Israel in the permanent-status accord.