On Sunday, a weighty document will drop through the letter box of every home in Israel. Depending on the views of the household, it will either be discarded as an act of treachery, or held up as the only real hope for peace in a country locked in a seemingly intractable struggle with Palestinians, a violent confrontation that has spiraled with tragic results over the past three years.
It is called the Geneva Accord, and it is in many ways a remarkable work.
The product of 2 1/2 years of secret negotiations sponsored by the Swiss Foreign Ministry, it is a 50-page blueprint for a final settlement in the seemingly unfathomable holy grail; peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Its authors are free-lance negotiators, Israeli opposition politicians and Palestinian ex-ministers, led by former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
The 10,000-word draft goes considerably further than the U.S.-backed plan known as the “road map,” which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005 but does not deal with the devilish details that have proven deal-breakers in previous peace talks.
Regarding the thorny issue of Jerusalem, for example, the Geneva accord replaces the “constructive ambiguity” of the road map with decisive clarity.
The city would be divided, becoming the capital of two states with each having sovereignty over their respective holy sites. In return for this, Palestinians would give up the right of return of exiles to Israeli territory.
This spirit of embracing the pain of compromise continues throughout the document. Whereas the U.S.-backed plan calls for a Palestinian state without detailing the borders, the Geneva agreement
outlines in detail the map references for a West Bank, based on pre-1967 lines, connected to the Gaza Strip by a corridor under Israeli sovereignty.
Israel’s right to exist would be recognized by Palestinians, and the entire agreement would be implemented under the guidance of a multinational force.
A PIPE DREAM?
Which is all very well, but can the document ever really be anything other than a pipe dream of liberal intellectuals who are distanced from the realities of the security issues, hatred and power games that are the reality on the ground?
At first glance, the prospects are grim. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has denounced Beilin and his fellow Israeli negotiators as “traitors,” and the Swiss charge d’affairs was given a dressing down by the Israeli government for Swiss involvement in the plan.
Up until now, Sharon’s policies have enjoyed the support of the majority of Israelis, and even if a growing financial scandal was to remove him from power, his likely successor, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, would not be any more accommodating.
Even former prime minister Ehud Barak, a relative dove by Sharon’s standards, has described the accord as capitulation. “The peace of ostriches, a plan that only serves [Yasser] Arafat,” he said.
As for the Palestinians, while Arab sources say that the Geneva plan has the tacit support of Arafat, the Palestinian leader still appears more comfortable with the mantel of struggling freedom fighter than pragmatic state builder, and his stubborn refusal to give up control of internal security to the new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, still makes any vehicle for high-level talks with the Israeli leadership stutter into a series of dead ends.
So has it all been a waste of time and Swiss taxpayers’ money? Maybe not.
First the Palestinians. One way or another, Arafat’s stranglehold of the Palestinian leadership is seen as loosening and two top lieutenants as well as one widely-tipped successor, Marwan Baghouti, have been touring Palestinian refugee camps, promoting the Geneva plan.
When the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam printed the Geneva text in Arabic for the first time last week, every copy sold out and a reprint was ordered.
International diplomatic support also has solidified ahead of a Dec. 1 signing ceremony, which will be witnessed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and South Africa’s former leader, Nelson Mandela.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has given his backing, as has U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Most significantly, a letter from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to “Dear Yossi and Yasser” gave a side swipe to Sharon by saying “projects such as yours are important in helping sustain an atmosphere of hope.”
In Israel, public meetings to explain the accord have been packed, and the opinion pages of newspapers full of debate about its provisions.
But more importantly still, there have been recent movements in public opinion strong enough to suggest that perhaps now the Israeli people are tiring of a future that appears to offer only military repression of the Palestinians as a solution.
Last month, the Army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, astonished the government by declaring that restrictions on the movement of Palestinians are counterproductive, generating greater hatred of the occupying army.
This month, 100,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to remember the man associated more than any with peacemaking, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — the largest show of strength by the left since Sharon’s election in 2001.
An opinion poll this week in the Maariv Daily said that just 34 percent of respondents approved of Sharon’s performance, compared with 40 percent in a survey two weeks earlier. Disapproval rose from 54 to 57 percent.
But all of this paled in comparison to the bombshell dropped by four former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, two days before the distribution of the accord to the Israeli public.
In an interview published in Friday’s edition of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and in a radio talk show, they launched a searing attack on the current government’s policies, sending a shudder through the ranks of the ruling Likud Party.
The four have 20 years of experience heading the General Security Service, or GSS, the organization that knows better than any other the mindsets of both Palestinian and Israeli societies.
Their conclusion was that if Israel does not embark on a peace deal soon, it was endangering its very existence.
Yaacov Perry, who ran Shin Bet from 1987 to 1993, said the only way “out of the mud” is for Israel to take unilateral steps, such as withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.
“In every aspect that you look at — economic, diplomatic, security, and social ... we are heading to an almost catastrophic decline,” Perry said.
Carmi Gilon, Shin Bet head from 1995-1996 agreed: “It is clear to me that we are heading for a crash.”
At the heart of the coordinated attack was the behavior of the Israeli Defense Forces in the territories.
Avraham Shalom, a Shin Beit leader with a reputation as a hard-liner, weighed in with his own tough assessment.
“We must once and for all admit that there is another side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering, and that we are behaving disgracefully. Yes, there is no other word for it. Disgracefully.”
And so it went on. The intelligence chiefs said it was a grave error to dismantle the Palestinian security forces, that the controversial security fence around the West Bank is a mistake, that the Israelis were over-obsessed with Arafat, and ultimately, that the government’s policies have brought about a loss of hope on both sides.
The outburst was extraordinary from men whose opinions would normally be listened to by even Sharon’s most right-wing supporters. And the words just might make enough Israelis read the Geneva Accord text in a new light when it pops into their mailboxes this weekend.
(NBC’s Charles Sabine is on assignment in the Mideast.)