At last, after three years in the political wilderness, the Israeli left has something to cheer about. The so-called “Geneva accord,” negotiated by a group of Israeli doves and Palestinian moderates, have revived dormant hopes of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and given Israel’s flagging left a shot in the arm.
But right-wing and centrist critics insist that the group led by former Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin has done more harm than good. Opening the Knesset’s winter session on Monday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected the agreement as an “illusion” that would encourage the Palestinians to go back on their commitments under the U.S.- backed “road map” peace plan to fight terrorism.
Moreover, because they were so intent on clinching a deal to boost their political fortunes, critics say, the Israeli negotiators gave away far too much. They also accuse Beilin’s group of subverting democratic processes by arrogating a role reserved for the elected government — especially considering that Israeli voters soundly rejected the left’s platform in the country’s last two elections.
What’s worse, critics say, the Geneva negotiators have put this and any Israeli future government in an invidious position: In any future official negotiations, they argue, the unauthorized Geneva “concessions” will serve as a starting point for new Palestinian demands.
The doves counter that the agreement results from the political vacuum caused by the government’s failure to initiate far-reaching peace moves. Moreover, they say, it shows — contrary to government claims — that there indeed is someone to talk to on the Palestinian side, and something to talk about.
The Geneva agreements, say the doves, offer the leaders on both sides a way out of the cycle of violence and death.
Former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, one of the Geneva negotiators, calls the initiative “an historic turning point” — because, he says, “it enables the governments, if they so choose, to understand exactly what each side is ready to give up.”
If they ignore the plan or fail to come up with alternative proposals, Mitzna says, “we will go on living by the sword.”
The Geneva accord is not the only grass-roots initiative to try to break the current diplomatic deadlock. A one-page plan finalized several months ago by Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, and Sari Nusseibeh, formerly the Palestinian Authority’s top Jerusalem official, has nearly the same parameters as the Geneva agreement.
Ayalon and Nusseibeh have gathered signatures supporting the document — 90,000 Israelis and 60,000 Palestinians, they claim — but say they are waiting for more before taking it to Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
Meantime, the two are making presentations this week to top State Department officials and senior members of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
“Our hope is to take this single page and put it inside the road map,” Nusseibeh said.
Another three Palestinians, all senior members of P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, are due to meet with congressmen this week.
But the Geneva accord, by and large, is not getting a warm reception in Israel. One of the most scathing critics is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, of the Labor Party, who maintains that the Geneva accord lacks key elements upon which Israel must insist: There is no explicit Palestinian waiver of the demand that refugees be granted a “right of return” to homes they fled during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
There also is no explicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, Barak says.
Unofficial versions of the text bear Barak out. They also suggest that Beilin’s group has gone much further than Barak did on the key issues of territory, Jerusalem and refugees at the Camp David summit in July 2000 or at follow-up negotiations held in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001.
On territory, the Palestinians would get 98 percent of the West Bank — including the city of Ariel, which they did not get at Taba.
In compensation for the 2 percent annexed to Israel — mainly Israeli towns in the West Bank close to the pre-1967 border or near Jerusalem — the Palestinians would get land from Israeli kibbutzim abutting the Gaza Strip.
On Jerusalem, the agreement would give the Palestinians administrative control of the Temple Mount, with a multinational force guaranteeing free movement and security on the ground. Israel would get sovereignty over the Western Wall and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
As at Taba, Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem would constitute Israel’s capital, while Arab and other non-Jewish neighborhoods of the city would become the capital of Palestine.
The biggest stumbling block in previous negotiations was the refugee issue. The Palestinians refused to waive their demand for a right of return, a key element in their historical narrative of dispossession. Israel fears that such a right would delegitimize the Jewish state and — if it leads to a flood of refugees entering Israel — spell the end of the Jewish state.
In the Geneva text, the Palestinians include U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and the 2001 Saudi peace initiative — which, some analysts say, is tantamount to bringing in the right of return through the back door.
The agreement’s refugee clause would allow each refugee to choose between 5 options: moving to Palestine; moving to Israel; moving to the territories Israel hands over in land swaps; settling in third countries such as Germany, Australia or Canada; or remaining in their current host countries, such as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Most Arab countries have refused the Palestinians citizenship, keeping them as refugees.
The Israeli side tries to nullify a right of return by asserting that implementation of the refugee clause will be seen as “full implementation” of the relevant U.N. resolutions and that no further claims will be addressed in the future.
Though Israel will be entitled to limit its intake of refugees, the agreement says that it “will take into account the average number taken in by the third countries.” That means Israel could find itself pressed to take in tens of thousands of refugees by an international committee that the agreement says should be formed to process applications.
To limit this type of pressure, the Israeli team insisted on a relatively short resettlement process. The agreement stipulates that all applications must be submitted within two years and all relocations completed within five.
Some leading Israeli commentators, like Nahum Barnea of the Yediot Achronot newspaper, think this mechanism finally settles the refugee issue. Others, like Uzi Benziman of Ha’aretz, have serious doubts.
Beilin stresses that the Geneva accord is not a peace agreement but a model for what a deal might look like. He assumes Palestinian good faith and says the agreement shows both that peace is attainable and the price Israel would have to pay for it.
He now intends to seek international support for the deal — and, simultaneously, launch a campaign to persuade Israelis that the price is worth paying.
But he will have his work cut out for him. An Oct. 15 poll in Yediot Achronot showed 39 percent supporting the accord and 59 percent opposed. Two days later, the Ma’ariv newspaper recorded 23 percent support, 57 percent opposition and 20 percent undecided.
The argument between left and right highlights a fundamental difference of approach. Highly suspicious of Palestinian motives, the right insists on the slow, step-by-step process of the road map, arguing that it’s absurd to attempt one quantum leap to a final agreement when the sides can’t even stop the violence and get past Step One in the road map.
The left counters that the road map is going nowhere, and that its final destination is not even clear. What’s needed, they say, is a clear sense of the final destination, which the Geneva accord could provide. They say: Why not try the Geneva approach and put the Palestinians to the test?
The right says the doves are naive and play, once again, into the Palestinians’ hands.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.