In Israel, the doves awaken

Since Camp David failed, most Israelis have accepted the slogan "We have no one to talk to." A bold peace initiative has changed that -- and given rise to that rarest of commodities, hope.

Published October 24, 2003 7:14PM (EDT)

Yossi Beilin has been the most daring and influential political entrepreneur in Israel for more than a decade. The soft-spoken, bespectacled political scientist has managed to set the national agenda time and again, typically setting off with little or no support from his political peers and national leaders, and then steering them in his direction. In a governing culture built on hesitation and the avoidance of tough choices, Beilin has played the role of the daring scout, charting unpaved roads toward peace and reconciliation with Israel's Arab neighbors.

Beilin's modus operandi works like this: He builds a "model" for a solution and then presents it to the decision makers at critical moments, when their policies are going nowhere and need a shakeup. Lacking a credible alternative, they have little choice but to follow Beilin's lead. That is how Beilin laid the basis for the Oslo process with Yasser Arafat's PLO in the early 1990s. Later, he conceived the formula for a final-status deal with the Palestinians, which was eventually discussed at Camp David in 2000. He also created the momentum for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon.

The failure of Camp David and the following negotiations at Taba have plunged the Israelis and Palestinians into the terrible violence that has raged without interruption for the past three years, causing thousands of deaths and injuries. Domestically, the breakdown of negotiations led to the rise of the right wing, bringing Ariel Sharon back from the political wilderness to the national helm. When Ehud Barak, Labor's last prime minister, declared, "We have no partner" on the Palestinian side, the majority of Israelis agreed with him and the political left was devastated. Beilin himself was kicked out of active political life and later abandoned the Labor Party, having lost his bid for a parliamentary seat.

But Beilin never gave up. Along with his small group of peace-seeking devotees, he went on trying to reach a model agreement with a similar group of interested Palestinian politicians. A couple of weeks ago, he scored his latest coup and once again succeeded in turning the national agenda upside down. The "Geneva accord" is a peace agreement reached by a team of left-leaning Israelis -- including several prominent Labor politicians as well as two of Israel's most acclaimed writers, Amos Oz and David Grossman -- and moderate Palestinians, including veteran Camp David negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo. Lacking any official status, it's a mere theoretical exercise. Despite this, its authors have managed to take the political initiative and put Ariel Sharon's government on the defensive with the public. Beilin's goal was to prove to the skeptical Israelis, devastated by the endless bloodshed, that there is a "who" to talk with" and a "what" to talk about on the other side: to disprove the government's line that as long as Arafat lives and holds power, any diplomatic opening is useless and dangerous.

The Geneva accord (the name honors its Swiss sponsors) takes up where the Taba talks ended inconclusively in January 2001. Consequently, it aims to resolve the three most contentious issues of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the pillars of the conflict -- namely, borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. It seeks to break the deadlock by moving directly to the final status, without complicated interim steps. Its conflict-resolution formula demands an Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank and all of Gaza to the pre-1967 lines, to create a demilitarized Palestinian state; land swaps to fully compensate the new state for those West Bank settlements not dismantled (about half), which will be annexed to Israel proper; a division of Jerusalem, including its holy sites, along ethnic and religious lines; and a "recipe" of choices for refugees, assuming that most will remain in their "hosting" Arab countries or will settle in the new Palestinian state.

For both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, the refugee issue is the hottest potato. The Palestinian claim that the 1948 refugees and their descendants have "the right of return" to their homes in what is now Israel is viewed by most Israelis as tantamount to the destruction of the Jewish state. For their part, Palestinians regard the right of return as symbolically sacrosanct -- but have also sent out signals at various times that they understand Israeli fears and would be willing to adopt a realistic position. Beilin, who negotiated the refugee clauses at Taba, has since tried in vain to convince his fellow Israelis that this is a bogus issue, used as a scarecrow by right-wingers who oppose any compromise anyway. Nevertheless, the Geneva architects assert that their Palestinian interlocutors have in fact (though not formally) waived the right of return and agreed to a deal in which Israel would eventually accept only a small number of refugees, up to 40,000. Such a number would not cause Jews to become a minority in Israel.

The Geneva plan is not perfect. Like previous Beilin endeavors, it may be overoptimistic in its ambitious effort to bridge generations-old problems with mere words. Some of its solutions appear impractical: for instance, its approach to the divided, but intertwined, Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Compared with the Camp David, Taba and Clinton formulas, it walks an extra mile toward the Palestinian demands on borders, Jerusalem and security issues, while giving more to the Israelis on the right of return. All in all, however, it is an intriguing effort to break the stalemate and find a way out of the current morass of mutual violence.

The first person to acknowledge the political importance of the plan was none other than Sharon himself, who attacked its authors even before the plan became public knowledge. On Oct. 8, speaking at a political rally ahead of Israel's municipal elections, Sharon launched a fierce attack on the left. He accused it of subversion, of assisting the Palestinians and aiming to topple Israel's elected government during its war against terrorism. These were indeed harsh charges, especially coming from Sharon, who has tried to portray himself as a fatherly, almost nonpartisan figure. Thus, unwittingly, he turned himself into Beilin's best P.R. agent.

Sharon's attack reflected the fact that the political winds had begun to blow against him. Since taking office in March 2001, Sharon enjoyed virtual freedom from opposition. His failure during the 1982 Lebanon war, which he engineered, taught him a lesson in the importance of public consensus. His first Cabinet included the Labor Party, but after winning reelection early this year, Sharon formed a right-wing coalition. Even then, the opposition was slow to emerge. First came the war in Iraq, and then the American attempt to revive the peace process through the "road map." Sharon accepted the road map (albeit with reservations), and welcomed the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas ("Abu Mazen"), depicting him -- wrongly, as it turned out -- as the successor to Arafat. But violence erupted again after a seven-week ceasefire, Abbas resigned, and the road map all but collapsed. Sharon was left with no political alternative besides using more force and threatening to expel or kill Arafat, whom he called "the main obstacle to reconciliation."

The resumed stalemate prompted the resurrection of the Israeli left from the ashes, where it had resided since the Camp David debacle. The turning point was a "refusal letter" signed by 27 reservist pilots in the Israeli Air Force, who pledged not to participate in combat missions in Palestinian areas, saying they were immoral. "We, who were taught to love Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in attacks on civilian population centers," the pilots wrote. Their credibility was somewhat problematic -- most have long been retired from active flying -- but given the reverence for airmen in Israeli society, their protest made a considerable impact, especially compared with the failed efforts of former, ground-based "refuseniks" to catch the public attention. The military responded by kicking the "refusenik pilots" out of the cockpits but failed to silence them. Led by former Gen. Yiftah Spector, who participated in the 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor, they became the bon ton speakers of the newly emerged opposition.

But protest alone cannot serve as a political agenda. Geneva gave the left an even more important commodity, namely a platform, which it desperately needed during the last three bloody years. Beilin managed to recruit some of his former Labor colleagues to the initiative, in order to give it more respectability. These latecomers included Amram Mitzna, the former party chairman who lost the election, and Avraham Burg, the previous Knesset chairman. Both belong to the moderate Labor camp. But other party seniors, like Barak, attacked the initiative, or simply turned away.

Even with this modest support, the news of the peace plan caused a fierce public debate to burst out overnight. Following a long period of seeming national consensus over war and peace issues, the government found itself on the defensive, having to defend its policies and respond to Beilin's initiative. Geneva's critics focused on the "subversion" allegation, accusing Beilin and Co. of negotiating the country's fate without proper authority, behind the government's back, thereby weakening Israel's ability to win the war and aiding the enemy through false hopes. Unsurprisingly, the pro and con arguments soon went overboard. Mitzna wrote that Geneva was even more important than David Ben Gurion's proclamation of Israel in 1948. From the right, Knesset member Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party demanded the indictment of Geneva's authors for high treason.

On Monday, Sharon gave his semiannual address at the opening of the Knesset's winter session. He did not mention Geneva, but it clearly influenced his every word. Having realized his initial mistake, Sharon tried to change course and turn Geneva against its authors, calling it "a misrepresentation" and appealing to "responsible Labor members" to support the government. Thus he tried to split the left camp.

Nevertheless, Sharon's arguments were hollow. He promised the wary public "a real chance for real progress" and held out hopes that the deadlock might be broken within "several months." Until then, the public was asked to hold on, which meant to absorb more terror attacks and further economic decline. Sharon praised "the road map, with Israel's reservations," as the only possible plan, and as always, demanded that the Palestinians act first. True to form, he avoided taking any initiative, save for approving the controversial security barrier in the West Bank.

In fact, Sharon knows very well that the road map has been all but dead for several weeks, and that there is no reason for anyone to believe that his policies will produce "real progress," whether in several months or several years. The Bush administration lost its short-lived interest in peacemaking, pulled back its envoy John Wolf, and announced it would return only when a new Palestinian prime minister takes office and assumes responsibility over a unified security force. Israeli officials understand it as a long timeout, at least until after the American presidential election and the forming of a new administration. They well know that Bush sees every political reason not to enter the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: He fears losing his Christian evangelical base and valuable Jewish votes if he criticizes Sharon; and with the Democrats also unswervingly supporting Sharon's policies (the Democratic frontrunner, Howard Dean, was savaged and forced to retreat when he suggested that U.S. policy needed to be more evenhanded), Bush doesn't have to pay any political price for his position.

Following a deadly attack last week, in which three American security guards were killed when a roadside bomb exploded under their car near Gaza, the administration pulled its diplomats out of the occupied territories altogether. Washington is sticking with its Catch-22 policy regarding Arafat: It agrees with Sharon that the Palestinian leader is the main obstacle and refuses to talk to him, but at the same time forbids Israel to expel or kill him. Under these conditions, all Sharon can do is hope for Arafat's demise. Speculations about Arafat's recent illnesses -- a heart attack, stomach infection, liver troubles, gallstones -- were warmly welcomed in Israel's security circles. Israeli intelligence maintains that the Palestinian leader is sicker than his physicians say. American officials doubt it, but who really knows what is happening inside Arafat's bloodstream.

Sharon's government continues to repeat the mantra that when Arafat disappears, his successors will prove more "moderate" and will accept Israel's demands to fight terrorism. So far, however, there are no indications that this analysis is correct. Ahmed Qorei ("Abu Ala"), the interim Palestinian prime minister, has been thwarted by Arafat from even forming a Cabinet, with the sticking point, as always, being control of security. By Nov. 4, Abu Ala must present his permanent Cabinet or resign. Israeli security officials give him zero chance of remaining in office, despite the government's pledge to negotiate with him if he succeeds.

Facing this stalemate, some Likud politicians have started raising alternatives. Sharon's deputy, former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, suggested a "unilateral move" in which Israel would define its borders and abandon parts of the West Bank. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Israel's war leader, warned of a diplomatic vacuum. But both, like other politicians, have merely whispered, avoiding serious public debate over their ideas.

Sharon's grip over Israeli politics appears to be unchallenged, despite his failure to bring peace, security or prosperity; his recent decline at the polls; and the ongoing criminal investigation into his campaign finances. Senior Likud members say that he could win approval for a moderate diplomatic initiative, which would include the removal of several isolated settlements. But Sharon is in no rush. He prefers waiting -- while escalating his military response to Palestinian attacks -- to taking any peace initiative. Given America's total support for Sharon, it's hard to see any imperative for policy change in Jerusalem.

As Sharon spoke at the Knesset plenum, the fragile, de facto calm between Israel and Hamas broke down. The Palestinians launched Qassam rockets on Sunday, prompting a fierce Israeli response with helicopter attacks in Gaza that killed 12 people the next day. Since then, Israelis are waiting in despair for the inevitable deadly response.

This cruel reality was not lost on Shimon Peres, Sharon's longtime friend who returned to the post of opposition leader. When the Labor Party leader rose to give his customary response to Sharon's speech, he avoided shaking the prime minister's hand. Once on the podium, he launched a fierce, unprecedented attack on the government's sit-tight policy, seeming to erase the memories of his loyal service as Sharon's foreign minister until their coalition collapsed a year ago. As always, the 80-year-old Peres gave a vigorous performance, speaking without notes and spellbinding the audience, in stark contrast to Sharon's carefully read talking points.

It was a good show, but in the end it was just a show. Neither Peres, nor his opposition colleagues who interrupted Sharon's speech with numerous boos, have any chance to topple the government. The election results made Likud the dominant party, an inevitable axis for any possible coalition. Even if Sharon leaves, his successor will be from the right.

Still, things have changed. Before the nation heard about Geneva, Peres had avoided even the smallest criticisms of Sharon and seemed to want to crawl back into the Likud leader's lap. Only when Beilin, his old protég´, dared to put his alternative on the table, did Peres remember his real place in Israeli politics. Despite some reservations over Geneva's details, Peres has publicly defended the negotiations.

In all probability, the Geneva accord will not be translated into a formal peace deal in the foreseeable future. Nor will its authors assume leadership positions. But it already sowed the seeds of an Israeli debate over the most momentous matters: war and peace, relations with the Palestinians, the future of the Jewish state. And judging by the experience of the past 30 years, this is the first step toward policy and political change.

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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