The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed to “fight terror as if there were no peace and … make peace as if there were no terror.” The story of the 2003 Geneva Accord is a testament to that spirit at a time when many in the region see plenty of reasons to doubt that peace is within reach. Many Israelis view the second intifada and the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness or inability to rein it in as evidence that a Palestinian peace partner simply doesn’t exist. For Palestinians, Israeli military strikes, the economic strangulation of the territories, the construction of the security barrier, and Ariel Sharon’s plan to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip are proof that Israel is not interested in a negotiated solution, and seeks to thwart the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
In his book, The Path to Geneva, Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords, takes us through the years of the official peace talks — and of the parallel, and unofficial, Geneva Accord talks. Over the course of more than two years, with officials talks stalled, Beilin continued negotiations in secret with Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasser Abed Rabbo. They came up with what they hope will become a blueprint for a permanent settlement of the conflict once official negotiations resume.
Under the Geneva Accord, Israel makes greater territorial concessions than in previous proposals and cedes sovereignty over the Temple Mount, or the Haram al-Sharif, to the Palestinians. The Palestinian refugees, for the most part, give up claims of the “right of return” to Israel and receive financial compensations. The Geneva Accord remains unendorsed — indeed, dismissed — by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, but Beilin sees reason for optimism in polls showing that about 40 percent of Israelis and Palestinians in support of the agreement.
Beilin, who is currently the leader of the Social-Democratic “Yahad” party, recently spoke with MotherJones.com from Israel.
MotherJones.com: How do the agreements in the Geneva Accord differ from the proposals rejected at Camp David?
Yossi Beilin: Well, first of all, this is something which has been agreed upon. So the big difference is not necessarily the details, but the mere fact that those details were agreed upon by both sides. It is very difficult to compare, because you don’t have the paper of Camp David — there was never such a paper. What you have is a debate about the different views, subjective views, of the participants, and analyses about Camp David. I believe that the ideas which evolved in Camp David, and the Clinton Plan, and then in the Taba talks in January 2001, were the basis for our negotiations.
In our initiative, the basis for the negotiations are the borders of ‘67. And when we deviated from these borders, there was a total compensation to the Palestinians. So if we annexed about 2 percent of the West Bank, we would hand over two percent from sovereign Israel to the new Palestinian state. In Camp David, the [Ehud] Barak idea was to hand over to the Palestinians only 91 percent of the West Bank. As for the other issues, there is a very clear division in East Jerusalem and in the Old City of Jerusalem: we are handing over the sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians. In Camp David, this was not the case. We are suggesting that we accept the five permanent venues for the Palestinian refugees which were proposed by Clinton — meaning the new Palestinian state, the current countries where the refugees live today, the areas that would be swapped by Israel to the new Palestinian state, and host or third countries that might absorb these refugees. The fifth one will be Israel, and there we’ll take into consideration, when we absorb these refugees, the average number of the refugees absorbed by other countries.
MJ.com: What were the difficulties and the advantages of conducting these unofficial peace talks after the official talks failed, the intifada began, and Ariel Sharon was elected the prime minister?
YB: Well, we knew that Sharon would not negotiate with the Palestinians because no Palestinian can accept his plan — which [envisions] some enclaves of Palestinian autonomy or partial sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. So we decided to negotiate and to suggest something that might be accepted by relatively big groups on both sides. And those who negotiated, most of them, were the previous official negotiators on both sides. So although it was a kind of a civil society initiative, in reality this initiative was suggested by veterans of the negotiations and not just by academicians, or people who were outside the political loop.
Now, speaking about the advantages, the main one is that it was secretly done, without any interference, so there was no pressure on us to show some advance in the negotiations when this was not the case. While in official talks, there is such a pressure, which comes mainly from the media.
On the other hand, since there was no deadline — in official talks you always have a kind of a deadline, even if it is artificial — it went on longer than expected. We thought it would take several months, and it took about two-and-a-half years. And since we were only unofficial negotiators, we did not have professional assistance. And we had many, many difficulties in meeting with each other as a result of the curfews and the closures and the ongoing violence. Sometimes it was even impossible to meet abroad. Most of the time, it was easier to meet abroad than either on the Palestinian side, which was [off limits to] us because of the government decision that no Israelis could go to areas under the Palestinian Authority, called Area A. And it was also difficult to get permits for the Palestinians. So these technical difficulties were very typical for something unofficial. Had it been official negotiations, nobody would have stopped us from meeting each other.
MJ.com: At times, you met at Israeli checkpoints.
YB: Yes. In most of the cases when we met in the region, we met at the checkpoints. Usually, it was in a building, in the World Bank building in Jerusalem, which is adjacent to A-ram checkpoint. But sometimes even that was impossible, so we had to meet in the checkpoint itself, where there was no building whatsoever. Once we met in a car. This made our life quite difficult and dragged the process much, much longer than expected.
MJ.com: Sharon and Bush have ruled out any direct dealings with Arafat. Was that a mistake?
YB: Yes, it is a mistake, because they don’t suggest an alternative and they don’t set conditions. I think Arafat is a very problematic counterpart, and the fact that rather than stopping the intifada at its inception, he actually rode the wave of the intifada, was the biggest mistake he made. But punishing him is childish and calling him an irrelevant leader is childish too. He is very relevant, whether we like it or not.
I think what had to be done was to put conditions to him, like to unify the security forces and to fight terrorism could be the way to test him again, and to see how serious he was. Saying to him, “Whatever you do, you will never ever become again a partner,” is actually sending him to extremism. That’s a big mistake. Had the Americans or Sharon been in a situation to say, OK don’t talk to Arafat, but you have a Jefferson-style president to replace him and talk to him — that could have been a reasonable offer. But we all know that, right now, there is no substitute for him. And excluding Arafat means either to take unilateral steps, like the withdrawal from Gaza, without anything in exchange. This is a very strange way to say we don’t have a partner, so we give him whatever we have without any price.
The other option is to do nothing, which for Israel is not a real option. It might be an American option. Bush doesn’t live here and he doesn’t have the responsibility to keep Israel Jewish and democratic, and I am not sure whether Bush is worried about the demographic problem or the border problems of Israel. But we live here and we need a solution before there is a Palestinian majority under our control. I am sure that Bush either doesn’t understand or is not worried about it, but he cannot tell us don’t negotiate with your only partner without suggesting a real substitute. And just using the “road map” as a fig leaf to say, I am still committed to the Bush vision, or to the “road map,” without doing anything in order to implement it.
MJ.com: What steps would you like Bush, if he wins a second term, or Kerry, if he wins, to take?
YB: First of all, you cannot do something like excluding our only partner without suggesting anything in exchange. I don’t expect that the Americans will do our work and I don’t think they can negotiate on our behalf. We succeeded to have peace with Jordan, and to have the Oslo agreement, and to withdraw from Lebanon without the Americans. They helped us a lot once we did it of course, financially and otherwise, but they were not involved at all in these three efforts. And when they were involved, like with the negotiations with Syria, nothing happened. So I don’t expect the Americans to impose the solution, or to suggest even a solution, or to work for us. The only thing that I want them to do is not disturb us and not put us in a situation whereby negotiations cannot take place.
MJ.com: Bush supports Sharon in his policy of unilateral disengagement and his security fence. You oppose them. Why?
YB: I think these are two different things. The barrier was imposed on Sharon. He was very much against it, he spoke against it. At a certain moment, he saw that there was a huge support in Israel for it of more than 70 percent and so he decided to build his own barrier, which resembles very much his plan. He has a plan. His plan is to put the Palestinians in some enclaves, like prisons, in order to get rid of the demographic problem without having a contiguous Palestinian state, without giving them the capital, and without solving the refugee problem — which I believe is a danger for Israel even before it is a danger to the Palestinians. So he tried to build this fence, but both the Israeli Supreme Court and the International Court could not accept his route, and he had to change this fence. And I believe that was he is doing today with the fence is something which is totally against his original idea. He is building the fence much closer to the ‘67 borders, and I believe that he is doing it against his will.
The question of Gaza is different. I believe that getting rid of Gaza was part of his original plan, but he could not do that at the beginning of his term because the Palestinians were still considered partners. We had just concluded our negotiations in Taba. They were quite successful. We felt that we were closer to each other than ever before. The Americans still talked with Arafat. And Sharon had to prove to the Israelis and to the Americans that the Palestinian Authority could not be a partner, only then it was possible for him to get the support for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Had he suggested it in March 2001, when he was elected, I assume that President Bush would’ve told him this is not part of any plan; don’t take unilateral decisions. This did not happen three years later when the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority was destroyed by Sharon. (And not without reason; I mean, the Palestinian Authority was involved in terrorism. And, again, Arafat himself helped him a lot with his speeches, with what he did with Karine A — this famous boat which brought ammunition and weapons from Iran to the Palestinians — all these things helped Sharon to say I don’t have a partner.
MJ.com: What will happen if this plan proceeds and there is still no coordination between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority?
YB: Nobody knows exactly, but I think unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza is very risky. We, as the Yahad party in Israel, will support it, because we cannot be against an end of the occupation, even in on only 6 percent of the territories. But we are worried about the development, because it might strengthen the extremists, weaken the Authority even more, weaken the pragmatic end of the Palestinian side, because negotiations will become redundant. If Israel is leaving the territories on its own, why should they bother with concessions to us and the Geneva-like initiatives — if they just can wait and see whether Israel is withdrawing or not?
MJ.com: The government has recently announced a package for the Gaza settlers. Some of them will take it, but some of them have indicated that they are not going to move. How do you see this panning out?
YB: We are speaking here about a very small [number], about 1,600 families. A democratic government with an army and a police force can remove these people, especially when most of them are not criminals and will not fight against the army or the police. The easiest thing is to say that at a certain date, the government of Israel will order the army to leave the Gaza Strip, and that all those Israelis who remain there will become illegal settlers. Now, I believe that if this is the case, most of them will leave Gaza on their own and will take the compensations. If a small group of extremists says we are ready to remain there even without the army, defense, and without any budget, and without schools, and without hospitals, I believe that this group will become smaller and smaller, and eventually will have to leave too. The big mistake now is to wait for a showdown, that the international media will wait for a certain date, and then people from the West Bank will go to Gaza to help their brethren, and there will be a social pressure on those families in Gaza who don’t want to remain there, to remain there in order to demonstrate solidarity with extremists. I believe that what is being done — I don’t know whether on purpose or because of stupidity — is a preparation for a huge showdown in a half a year or so. And this, in my view, is a big, big mistake. It can be dealt with in a much easier way.
MJ.com: Have there been any developments on the Geneva Accord that you would like to share?
YB: The main development is the following one: Geneva got support that was much bigger than expected — about 40 percent in the public opinion polls on both sides. But of course it could not become a reality because it was not authored by the officials, and on the Israeli side, Sharon rejected it outright. And on the Palestinian side, although the Authority was very positive towards it, it never endorsed it.
Now, the direct impact of Geneva was that Sharon declared his ideas about unilateral withdrawal. When he was asked in the New York Times about it — why did he suggest the unilateral withdrawal just now? — he said that it was because of Geneva. He was afraid that a Geneva-like document might be imposed on Israel, and that he had to suggest his own ideas. Now this was a very important development, but once he suggested his idea, it became the only game in town. And the idea of Geneva was deferred to a much later point in the future, and the world is now dealing with the unilateral withdrawal.
What we are trying to do — on the Palestinian and on the Israeli sides — is to try and see what can be done in order to make the unilateral withdrawal, which we cannot reject, a first step towards a permanent solution like Geneva. So our efforts are now invested mainly in this missing link. After the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon doesn’t intend to do anything more. We, the peace camp in Israel, will have to put pressure on Sharon to go on and to talk seriously with the Palestinians in order to find a solution not only for Gaza, but also for the West Bank. So we are preparing ourselves. In the meantime, we will try to put on the agenda, very soon, a whole plan that will tell the world what should happen in order to make Gaza a first step towards an agreement. There are many, many issues that have to be tackled so that the withdrawal from Gaza will not be a punishment for the Palestinians, but just a beginning of the negotiations.
MJ.com: What are the prospects for the Geneva Accord being implemented and what, besides Sharon’s plan, are the other alternatives?
YB: Geneva is the Bush vision, it is the Clinton Plan, it is Camp David, it is Taba. Whatever you say, it is more or less Geneva. We did not invent the wheel; we just invented the details, not the wheel itself. The wheel is there, so whoever will take the decision to go for a permanent solution with the Palestinians will find himself in something like Geneva. Whether it is possible with the current government in Israel and the current government on the Palestinian side, I am not so sure, but I don’t want to give up.
I think that my role, or the role of the peace camp in Israel, is to do two things. One is to put pressure on Sharon to move, and that is what we did, and quite successfully, if you take into account what he himself admitted. And the other thing is to replace him as soon as possible, according to the democratic norms and rules of Israel, in order to have another leader who understands the need for a permanent agreement.