Like an unwelcome dinner guest, a detailed proposal for solving the violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians turned up on three important doorsteps on Monday, one in Jerusalem, one in Washington and another in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Negotiated secretly in Switzerland by Palestinians and Israelis who believe that a comprehensive solution is much closer than U.S., Israeli or Palestinian leaders would like to admit, the “Geneva Accord” has been characterized as everything from “treason” to “irrelevant” to Colin Powell’s more diplomatic slight, “welcomed.”
IT CAN hardly be surprising that such an informal intrusion into the prickly world of Mideast peace-making is being viewed with some resentment by those formulating policy for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and President George W. Bush. Even on simple issues, no politician appreciates it when civilians attempt to wrestle the agenda away from government.
Yet the initiative officially signed and delivered on Monday has changed the conflict’s dynamic by focusing attention on the failures of all three men to take the hard decisions or conceive creative solutions to its many dilemmas. Even if it does go the way of Camp David, Oslo, the Saudi plan and countless other efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this accord has at least forced governments who may have judged it possible to live with the status quo for now react to what has become a challenge to their authority.
‘CUTTING OFF THE ARM’
The accord, negotiated with diplomatic assistance from the Swiss government, takes a radically different approach from other recent efforts, eschewing the drawn out step-by-step “confidence building” formula that characterized the Oslo process in the 1990s in favor of solving the whole thing in one fell swoop.
“They’re applying the wise man’s advice about ending a bad marriage,” says an Israeli government official, requesting anonymity. “Either live with a cancer for the rest of your life, or cut off your arm and get it over with.”
Major concessions on both sides would be codified. Among the most stunning:
Jerusalem would be designated the capital of both states, with the Temple Mount assigned to Palestinian sovereignty but patrolled by a multinational military force;
The Palestinians would give up the “right of return,” the increasingly untenable demand that Israel allow the return of (or compensate financially) all Palestinians and their dependents who resided in the British mandate and subsequently fled or were expelled after Israeli independence.
Israel would agree to live within its pre-1967 borders, with important exceptions that would forestall the destruction of some of the largest and most contiguous West Bank settlements, in return for land concessions inside pre-1967 Israel.
A multinational force would be deployed for a time in the Palestinian state, and a three-member commission — Israeli, Palestinian and American, formed to ensure that terrorism or incitement to violence is punished appropriately.
This is but a taste of the sweeping compromises entailed in the agreement.
ANOTHER PLAN FOR THE ASH HEAP?
While the “plan” has received little attention in the U.S. media to date, it has been front page news in Israeli and Arab newspapers since its existence became known in late summer. Co-authored by former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, it has won backing from most Arab states, the European Union and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Among the three principal parties, however, reactions have been wary. The Israeli government official described the arc of reaction as follows:
“First, ignore it and hope it will go away. Then, call it well-meaning but irrelevant. If that doesn’t work, and it hasn’t, denounce it and question the motives of those involved. In the end, they may have to embrace it in order to try and hijack the agenda back.”
InsertArt(2082824)There were signs even Monday this fourth stage is under way. Arafat had remained noncommittal as hard-line Palestinian groups who support him spoke against the plan. Some even lined up at the border crossing with Israel on Sunday to throw stones at Palestinian delegates leaving for Geneva.
At the Geneva signing ceremonies, however, Jibril Rajoub, Arafat’s national security adviser, made a surprise appearance and insisted that Arafat wished the Geneva plan well. When pressed to say whether Arafat was endorsing the idea — which has sparked protests in Gaza because of the taboos it breaks, particularly with regard to the “right of return” — Rajoub was noncommittal.
Arafat, he said, “does not have to give an official endorsement of the deal. But he sent me, and the Israeli government is doing everything it can to fight this.”
The Bush administration, too, spent months avoiding high-level comment. Besides disrupting Bush’s own initiative, the “road map to peace,” the plan is viewed as tremendously naive by administration hawks who regard any deal that allows Arafat to stay in control as a travesty.
“Until this cottage industry of peace planning takes into account the need to loosen Yasser Arafat’s hold on pistol and purse of the Palestinian Authority, peace planning is doomed to fail,” says Raymond Tanter, a former Reagan administration national security aide and Mideast policy analyst who is close to many inside the Bush administration.
Tanter says Bush made it abundantly clear last year that the United States viewed peace as impossible without a new Palestinian leadership.
Yet, as the Geneva plan has refused to die, the administration has nuanced its public stance somewhat. Early last month, Powell released a letter he sent to both Rabo and Beilin that praised their role in keeping hope alive while insisting that the United States would continue to regard its own road map plan as the one on the table.
Powell reiterated the point last week in an interview with European journalists: “I think that we should not say the road map is dead. It’s there. We just had a pause.”
THE ISRAELI REACTION
Among the three principals, the reaction in Israel has been the most interesting. Ignoring it was not an option in Israel’s bare-knuckle parliamentary system, though Sharon resisted serious comment for a few weeks. In October, however, the prime minister condemned it and Israelis who participated in it as providing a “boost for terrorist organizations.”
Since then, debate over the plan has become a cottage industry in and of itself in Israel. Polls taken suggest as much as half the Israeli public may be open to such ideas — and similar numbers were found inside the Palestinian Authority’s territory.
The existence of the plan has reinvigorated not only “peace policy” inside Israel, but also the opposition Labor Party, which had until recently been absolutely prostrate in Sharon’s presence.
But the real wake-up call for the prime minister, Israeli analysts say, was a letter published by four former heads of the country’s domestic security organization, the Shin Bet, warning that his government’s inability to move forward on peace talks could have catastrophic results for Israel in the near future.
Sharon “is dealing solely with the question of how to prevent the next terrorist attack,” said Carmi Gilon, a Shin Bet chief during the mid-1990s. He warned that the more important question if Israel is to survive is “the question of how we get out of the mess we find ourselves in today.”
This has led Sharon to threaten, very recently, to “impose” a solution on the Palestinians, including a border defined by the controversial security fence Israel is now building, if they will not agree to reopen talks without preconditions on the Bush road map. Yet another fissure opened as result on Sunday, when Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s top military officer, took issue with the idea and warned that such moves can only be part of a comprehensive negotiated settlement lest they confer legitimacy on terrorists.
With such division inside Israel, Sharon’s threat to impose a solution may have no better chance of becoming reality than the Geneva Accord. But the signers of the accord probably knew that and would likely feel vindicated if the sole result of their enterprise were the resurrection of talks that might, someday, convince both sides to end the bloodshed.
Michael Moran is senior correspondent at MSNBC.com.