Peace . . . and Quietly

Israeli Pol Tests U.S. Waters for a New 'Geneva Accord'

Four Palestinians, among them a 10-year-old boy, were killed by Israeli troops in Gaza on November 7. A few days earlier, a teenage Palestinian suicide bomber had blown himself up near Israeli forces in the West Bank, wounding a soldier. Earlier that morning, Israel had sealed the city of Nablus, barring the entrance and exit of all traffic, including ambulances, and preventing Palestinians from nearby villages from access to the only medical services for miles. Not a day seems to go by without the carnage in the entrenched conflict continuing to pile up—almost 2,200 Palestinians and nearly 800 Israelis killed in the hostilities since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

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 refugees—without whose resolution the agreement is "not worth the piece of paper," said Mitzna—is 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 recognized—and 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.

In sum, the accord makes precisely the proposal that the Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick calls for in Right to Exist, his recent book defending his country's military policies. Like the vast majority of the Israeli public, he favors a land-for-peace, two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. "True peace without the [Jewish] settlements [in the Occupied Territories] would be preferable to almost any alternative," he writes, "if only someone would offer it to us." The question now is whether Israel will take the offer.

Sharon and the Israeli far right that shores up his coalition government reject the accord as treasonous—as does Palestine's fundamentalist opposition, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, invoking similar language in their condemnations. But the framers are currently distributing copies to their respective populations—sending them to every single residential mailbox and, in Palestinian towns without functioning postal systems, distributing them by hand—hoping to build a groundswell of support in the coming weeks before the official launch in Geneva on December 1. "After three years of bloodshed, people understand that military power and terrorism are not the way to win goals," Mitzna asserted. "As long as people thought we could win with power, they were not willing to make concessions. But that way has failed." By some accounts, it has even backfired. Last week the prime minister's own army chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, called the Israeli press to attack Sharon's strategy of trying to beat Palestinians into submission, charging that the relentless pressure provokes, rather than suppresses, Palestinian violence.

For those committed to the survival of a Jewish state, there's another, even more deeply threatening issue that gives the proposed agreement urgency: The Geneva Accord may represent Israel's last best chance for a two-state solution. The ever-more-permanent seizure of Palestinian land in the West Bank for ongoing settlement expansion and for the "security fence" makes the possibility of eventually dividing the territory less and less viable. Calls for a single, binational state have re-entered the discourse in Palestine and Israel, as analysts realize that the only internationally and morally acceptable option as the years of occupation wear on will be a one-person, one-vote democracy in all of historic Palestine. "Time is not in our favor," said Mitzna. "The Zionist movement is in more danger than ever." Applying to the Israeli right wing a rebuke that was once hurled at Palestinians, he said, "Preaching to have everything, we will end up having nothing."

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