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But the path to peace has never been clearer, insists Amram Mitzna, the former leader of Israel's Labor Party, who made a whirlwind tour of the American Northeast last week, speaking to Jewish communities to promote the Geneva Accord, a new, unofficial agreement drawn up by Israeli and Palestinian politicians working in secret for the past two and a half years under Swiss sponsorship. Though Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has attacked the plan as subversive, it won unexpected praise from the Bush administration last Friday. Stopping short of an official endorsement, Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a letter addressed to the initiative's leaders that "projects such as yours are important for sustaining hope and understanding."
More than that, the proposed agreement shifts the paradigm that has framed the current impasse. For the past three years, the mainstream pro-Israeli view has held that the Palestinians were presented with a generous offer at Camp David but rejected it in favor of violence, and that now there is no one with whom to negotiate. Whether one accepts that contested reading or not, the Geneva Accord turns the tables.
"We do have partners for peace," said Mitzna, sitting down with the Voice on the eve of the eighth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Indeed, Palestinian participants in the meetings, which took place in Geneva, East Jerusalem, London, Tokyo, Cairo, and Jordan, included not only longtime officials of the Palestinian Authority like former information minister Yasir Abed Rabbo, but also representatives of the militant guerrilla group the Tanzim, and even of Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Palestinian leader who by all accounts will replace Yasir Arafat one day. Arafat has tacitly given the agreement his blessing. (Israeli participants, on the other hand, are in their own government's opposition, but included high-ranking military commanders and members of the Knesset. Mitzna, a Knesset member, is a retired major general.) The proposal outlines in dense detail how Israel and Palestine could coexist as independent neighbors, offering a model of the "final status negotiations" called for in the U.S.-supported but stalemated "road map."
Unlike the Oslo accords, the Geneva initiative goes right to what the Israeli author Amos Oz calls the "radioactive core" of the conflict: permanent borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Until now, said Mitzna, the two sides have left these "painful and sensitive" issues to some later time, thus evading the very matters that keep the hostilities fueled.
The 51-page document (available in English on the website of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, haaretz.com) addresses even such minutiae as solid-waste disposal and civil-aviation agreements. At its heart, it proposes a Palestinian state on almost all the land Israel captured in the 1967 war. (Some border modifications would enable Israel to absorb Jewish neighborhoods outside Jerusalem for which Palestinians would get a one-to-one land swap; other Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be evacuated.) The accord elaborates an internationally monitored system for sharing Jerusalem as the capital of both states and it pledges Palestinian recognition of a right of the Jewish people to statehood (and Israeli recognition of the same for Palestinians). Most groundbreaking, it lays out a formula for refugee compensation and resettlement that "provides for the permanent and complete resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem," thus nullifying any future Palestinian claims for Israeli land or refugee rights.
The wording on this most vexing question of Palestinian refugeeswithout whose resolution the agreement is "not worth the piece of paper," said Mitznais carefully calibrated to make the agreement palatable to both publics. By invoking UN Resolution 194 as the basis for the formula, the agreement allows Palestinians to say that a right of return is implicitly recognizedand some newspapers in the Arab world are already so proclaiming. Meanwhile, Israelis can assert that such a right "is not mentioned in the agreement," as Mitzna emphasized, adding, "Israel does not take responsibility for creating the refugee problem because we are not responsible."
Counter as that assertion may be to the Palestinian view, the agreement need not settle competing understandings of history. "Narratives are not issues to be negotiated by politicians," said Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, even as he objected to Mitzna's interpretation. "The two societies have to come to terms on that, and it is a longer-term process." What the agreement offers, for the first time, is an end to the refugee crisis acceptable to representatives on both sides. "This is a real historic turning point," said Mitzna.