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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Edited Transcript of Yossi Beilin Talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on June 23, 2008.

 

 

Yossi Beilin:  Time for President Bush to Mediate Peace

Yossi Beilin, a leader of Israel's peace movement, Knesset member, former official, negotiator, Minister of Justice, leader of the Meretz-Yahad party, and co-author of the Geneva Accord, spoke at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington June 23 under the sponsorship of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, Americans for Peace Now, Churches for Middle East Peace, and the Israel Policy Forum. 

Beilin described  positive factors that could contribute to a two state peace: a recognition by Israel's political establishment, including much of the right wing, and a  majority of the Israeli public that the settlement project and greater Israel are incompatible with peace and Israel's security; an Israeli Prime Minister and a Palestinian President who are committed to peace; the Arab League initiative supporting peace; and the fact that the gaps between the two sides on the final status issues are narrow.  On the negative side, he cited deep skepticism among both Israelis and Palestinians, timid, poll-driven leaders, and passive, mistaken policies by the American administration of George W. Bush.  Beilin predicted, nevertheless, that if Bush engages soon with active mediation to close the gaps, a peace agreement by 2009 is still possible.  If this happens, he said a strong majority of Israelis, right and left, would support it.  If there is no peace, he predicted another intifada.  An edited transcript of Beilin's remarks follows.

Yossi Beilin:  Thank you all for coming.  I'm going to try to update you about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suggest ideas about how to change it.
 
The downsides are well known.  Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is unpopular and is facing four or five criminal investigations.  As a result he has lost part of his legitimacy to negotiate.  But unless he is indicted, the earliest date for new elections is November.  So  he still has time to get something done.
 
On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas is committed to one term only and has called for new presidential elections in January 2009. He is committed to peace, but is very weak.  He lost Gaza to Hamas, and reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is a big dilemma.  The Hamas coup d'etat, or whatever we call it, in Gaza was a blow to Abbas.  Even if he and Olmert reach an agreement in the current negotiations, what will happen on the ground when Hamas is still occupying Gaza and opposes it?

In the U.S, the President is very unpopular. He is a lame duck and there is a big question whether he can do anything in his last months.
 
Against this gloomy background, there are some encouraging developments.  The best news is that both Israelis and Palestinians understand the solution to the conflict.  We did not understand this in Oslo. We had our ideas, but there was no clear understanding that the solution must be two states, division of Jerusalem, some symbolic solution for the refugees, security arrangements for Israel and other things.  This only became clear around 2000, in the process which began at Camp David, and continued in Taba and Geneva.
 
This mutual understanding of the solution is a very important development.  Prime Minister Olmert,  a former hawk who voted against the Camp David Accords in '78 when he was a young member of the Knesset, is now a convert to peace.  In all our debates during our careers, we were considered the two extremists.  He spoke about greater Israel; I spoke about the two state solution.  He tried to explain that the Jewish state is not in danger, that we have an historical right to greater Israel, and that there is no need to divide the land.  But about seven years ago, he and others on the right who are the sons and daughters of members of the Knesset from Herut, changed their minds. It is amazing that many, though not all, of the former extremists in Israeli society who believed in greater Israel and were elected to the Knesset as hawks have changed their minds in the last decade and now speak more or less like myself.
 
I've just come now from a meeting with our Ambassador Salai Meridor, who is one of these converted hawks.  He is ready to negotiate both with the Syrians and the Palestinians, even if the American administration is not too happy about an agreement between us and the Syrians.  Speaking about the division of Jerusalem, Meridor said the same things we have said for years:  "Who needs these refugee camps in Shuafat and in Kalandia that Israel has claimed should always be part of eternal, united Jerusalem?"  This change of opinion on the right presents a unique opportunity.
 
On the Palestinian side, President Abbas is a very courageous person who was one of the few with the guts to tell Arafat, "Stop with this idiotic intifada.  You are not going to win over Israel and you are only going to lose."  Abbas is committed to peace and says things that are hard for other Palestinians to say.  There is no question about his commitment to security, peace and one united security force in Palestine.
  
In the United States, President Bush made every possible mistake vis a vis our conflict in his first seven years.  But he changed his mind by calling for final status talks at Annapolis after seven years of a hands-off policy that harmed Israel.
 
Bush's policies strengthened Iran through the war in Iraq and encouraged Sharon to cut-off Israel's relationship with Arafat, although Arafat was ready, in my view, for an agreement. Also, Bush's road map created new obstacles to peace. His decision to impose on us Hamas as a party in the Palestinian elections also backfired. It ignored the Oslo agreement which says clearly that no person or organization which incites violence should participate in Palestinian democratic elections.
 
When Hamas won, none of us - the Palestinians, Egyptians, Americans or Israelis, and maybe not even Hamas itself -knew what to do. Since Sharon had rejected  Oslo, he could not use the Oslo agreement as grounds for opposing Hamas' inclusion in the elections.  He therefore yielded to American pressure to include Hamas, although Abbas opposed this.
 
Annapolis, in which the whole world participated just in order to listen to three mediocre speeches, was also badly handled.  It was a missed opportunity, since it did not really engage the Arab world by building on the Arab League initiative of 2002. This was the most important Arab development of the last decade, since it reversed the Arab rejectionist policy of the past.
 
After Camp David in 1978, the Arab world boycotted Egypt for making peace with Israel.   Now the Arab world is saying, "If Israel makes peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians; we will make peace with Israel."  For Israelis, this should have been seen as a dream come true - that we would finally become accepted in the region in which we live.  But rather than using the Arab League initiative and engaging the Arab world at Annapolis, the opportunity was lost.
 
Still, it's not too late.  I can tell you that President Bush told one of the most important Arab leaders recently that at a certain point in the second part of 2008, once he knows the exact gaps between Israel and the Palestinians in their bilateral negotiations, he will involve himself by suggesting bridging ideas.  He has never done this so far, and I am not sure whether he will this time.  But his commitment to do so is potentially important.  President Bush understands today much better than before the connections between Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq and  Iran, and that a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict could have a positive impact on American interests throughout the Middle East.
 
How wide are the gaps between the parties on final status issues of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, water, economy, and security? I think we are somewhere between the tentative agreements at Camp David and Taba and the Geneva Accord.  The latter has become a kind of a reference point for the negotiators because it is the only comprehensive agreement. Geneva is not the Bible, although it proves to the world that a peace agreement is doable.
 
The gaps on the major issues are really quite small.  A neutral observer might ask why we cannot resolve, for example, whether Israel can annex the 2.5 percent or slightly more or less of the West Bank that we need and whether the compensation for the annexation should be 1:1 or 1:1.2  It is not as if we lack the ingredients for peace.  No, we are almost there.  The only thing lacking is the courage to get to the moment of truth.  This has always been our story.
 
This is why we missed peace with Syria in January of 2000 in Shepherdstown when then Prime Minister Barak was very close to an agreement, but pulled back at the moment of truth when he was frightened of Israeli polls showing opposition to withdrawing from the Golan.   We also missed the opportunity, at Camp David.  The Americans and the Palestinians also blew it.  So the question is whether today we can seize the opportunity and recognize that if we do not, things will get worse in 2009.

On the Israeli side, Olmert will need a miracle to remain as prime minister.  I do not know who might replace him, it might be a right wing leader or it might be somebody from his own party.  If there is no peace in 2008, Abbas will almost certainly not be the Palestinian president much longer.

If there is no progress by the end of this year, the cease fire in Gaza is likely to lapse, and it will not be extended to the West Bank. If so and there is no political process, there will be an eruption of violence that will resemble September 2000.
 
Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians are tired and cynical, including many who were formerly dovish and pro peace.  But we cannot afford skepticism. It is strange that there is so little optimism when the polls show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace,  realize the conflict can no longer be managed, and understand the shape of a solution that would include dividing Jerusalem.

An early agreement is possible.  It is time for the U.S. President to suggest ideas for compromises between the two parties.  People might say it's too late and both sides are too weak to make peace. But if weak leaders have nothing to lose, the time may be ripe for a new American initiative.

If nothing is resolved under Bush's leadership, we surely cannot count on the next president to lead. It is mind boggling that Senator Obama's advisors told him to tell AIPAC that Jerusalem will be always united and Jewish, even though the Israeli prime minister says that we have to divide Jerusalem.  If Obama is elected, the same advisors are likely to tell him that because of other priorities, he should not deal with the Middle East.  If McCain is elected, his advisors will say the same thing - that peace making is politically too costly.  I am afraid that if the next president accepts such advice, it might - god forbid - explode in his face.
 
In any case, the situation in 2009 in the Middle East, including in Iraq and Iran will be very fragile.  The next president will have to deal with Israeli-Palestinian issue, and he should give it first priority.

I think the most important message for President Bush is that a two state peace is still doable, but time is short. Indeed, more and more people are talking about a "one-state solution," although that would not be a solution for either us or the Palestinians.

If the Annapolis process fails, this might discourage the next president from engaging on this issue promptly, and to put it off like Bush. We simply can't afford to let this happen.  The United States must realize that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a key to resolving many other problems.    The opportunity is there.  Today, Olmert, Abbas, and Bashar Assad are ready to make deals.  Let's take advantage of this opportunity, rather than waiting for new, unknown leaders to emerge.

The time to act is now, and I believe we can do it. If Bush fails, the next President should address the problem immediately.  Giving up on the Middle East, and thinking that it is something that cannot be resolved, must not be an option.  It would be a huge strategic mistake.

This is my introduction.  I'll be happy to take your questions.

Questions and Answers

Q:  Is the U.S. still uneasy about peace talks between Israel and Syria?  Also, are there discussions in Israel of a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem similar to discussions in the United States?
 
A:  Yes, the U.S. administration is uneasy about the Israeli-Syrian talks, but it has not vetoed them. Bush made it clear during his last visit to Israel.  When asked by the press, Bush said "If you want to make peace with Syria, be my guest."  It reminded me of a disapproving mother who says to her son, "If you want to go out with that lady, be my guest."

 I am glad that Olmert understands that peace with Syria is in Israel's interest, and I think Syria is ready for this. Yes, the price is very clear.  Israel must return to the'67 borders.   The Syrians need the Americans in these talks just as the Egyptians did in the peace negotiations in '78. It is hard to understand why Washington does not support Israeli-Syrian peace talks, but this still seems to be its position.

Iran is a very big problem for us. Ahmadinejad is exploiting the Israeli-Palestinian issue for political gain, though he really doesn't care about the Palestinians. Rabin said he accepted the Oslo agreement because he wanted peace before Iran had a nuclear bomb and before the population of Palestinians out numbered the Jews in Israel and the Occupied Territories.  These two considerations remain valid.  I support sanctions against Iran because it threatens the entire Middle East, Arabs and Israelis. But there should be carrots as well as sticks, and everything must be on the table.

Q: You didn't mention the recent ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. Given the weakness of Abbas and the Palestinian authority, has Israel implicitly accepted Hamas as a player?
 
A:  Hamas is a big headache. Its policies are surrealistic. They came to power as a result elections authorized by the Oslo agreement, which they reject. And although they claim they are a government, they do not recognize Israel, will not negotiate with it, or agree to end violence. In contrast, in 1988 the PLO leadership said it recognized two states and was ready to negotiate with Israel and stop violence if Israel agreed to negotiate with them.
 
Hamas also rejected the Geneva Accord by symbolically burning coffins of myself and my Palestinian partner in Geneva, Yasser Abd Rabbo. They see me as their worst enemy because I am a moderate Zionist who is willing to compromise, while they are not.  They prefer Israeli extremists, who are their mirror image.  I strongly supported the ceasefire with Hamas, but it is eventually up to Hamas to initiate negotiations.  If they are not ready to negotiate, how can I engage? I'm saying now openly and personally, I'm ready to speak to whomever who wants to speak to me.

Q: (continued)  Doesn't that mean that there will be no peace, just a kind of armed truce, at best, since Hamas is not going away?

A: I hope not. We need to work harder for a real peace by strengthening those who, unlike Hamas, want peace.

Q:  Olmert's territorial vision for peace implies that settlements like Elon Moreh and Ofra and Tekoa and Kiryat Arba are scheduled for probable evacuation in 2008.  Given the difficulty the government has had in trying to evacuate a relatively small outpost like Armona, how can the government evacuate Kiryat Arba or Ofra or Elon Moreh?

A:  I believe it is much easier to evacuate all at once than in a piecemeal way. It is hard to evacuate one settlement, where we succeeded in removing all the Gaza settlements.

If there is a firm decision to evacuate settlements in the West Bank, the democratic government of Israel with the army and the police will be able to do it. I'm proud that it took us only one day to evacuate Gaza.  Moreover, we do not have to evacuate all West Bank settlements to make peace.  We can reach an agreement in which about half of the settlers, those who live in settlements near the green line as well as those in Jerusalem, will remain.

Q:  Given the need for new Palestinian leadership, will Israel release Marwan Barghouthi?  Would he play a constructive role?
 
A:  He should have never been arrested, and he should be released.  When I met him in May 2000, he said "If you do not have an agreement by the end of this year, 2000, we will fight, because if we do not fight, Hamas will win."  I warned him that Hamas would win.  I think he misled himself to think that by using power, he could overcome Hamas. Nevertheless, he is an important and popular Palestinian politician and could bea candidate for the presidency, although he is not a Mandela.  He should be released.  If there is a deal to free prisoners, I hope that he is part of it.

Q:  I was surprised at your optimism about Olmert's intentions, given that settlement expansion has accelerated five-fold after Annapolis and checkpoints have increased in the last two and a half years.  Why is Olmert doing these things that undermine support for Abbas, if he wants peace?
 
A: Yes, the increase of settlements since Oslo is frightening.  Settlements have grown, notwithstanding opposition to them by leaders like Rabin and Barak.  Both leaders allowed settlements to expand to preserve their governing coalitions on the theory that paying off the right wing with settlements would enable them to stay in power and make peace.

This was a big mistake.  We have not made peace and the settlements are still there.  Olmert did not try to stop settlements because of threats to his coalation from Lieberman and Shas.  Also, some settlement expansion has been unauthorized and illegal, and settlers have tied up the process in the Supreme Court.
 
In any case, I have no doubt that Olmert and many of his right wing colleagues, such as Dan Meridor, Sallai Meridor and Tzipi Livni, have changed their minds about settlements and "greater Israel." Olmert said on the 29th of November, 2007 that while his father opposed the Partition Plan in '47, Ben-Gurion's support for  a small state was right.

Q: Please discuss the problem of inequality of Arab citizens of Israel.  Can they achieve equality? Can one look forward to an Arab Barack Obama sometime in the future being elected perhaps president of Israel?

A:  There is undoubtedly an increasing and deep feeling of discrimination among the Israeli Palestinians.  There have been improvements, but these have come too slowly. I enacted a law eight years ago that Palestinian-Israelis would have proportionate representation in all government ministries, or about 16 percent of the jobs.  Yet today, they hold only six percent of ministerial jobs. The young generation of this community are better educated and increasingly bitter.

About an Arab Obama, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the great ideologue of the Israeli right once wrote that he hoped that, at the end of the day, it might be a Jewish president and an Arab prime minister or the other way around.
 
So in a democratic state, anything might happen.  When I was in the foreign ministry I nominated the first Arab ambassador, and there was loud criticism from the Arab community who belittled this as a fig leaf to divert attention from discrimination and inequality in schools and infrastructure and public services in the Arab areas of Israel.  I had to defend my decision, and I went from a village to village to tell them, "Take it.  If you do not take it, it might make the efforts of people like me to fight for your equality almost impossible."

Also the first Arab Muslim was nominated as a minister on the government of Olmert, the Arabs complained because he is only one of twenty ministers.  I understand the Israeli-Palestinians' dilemma, but in order to have an Obama, they have to play the game.

Q: You view the possibility that President Bush might become directly involved in negotiations as a positive step.  Why?  About Iran, do you and other Israelis really believe that Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Israel?

A:  Only an authoritative third party like Bush can knock heads together and close the gaps. The gaps are small and can be compromised, but a third part must be here to reach an agreement.

My dream is to replicate what happened in  Taba in '95 when Abu Ala and Uri Savir negotiated the Interim Agreement with U.S. mediation.  Dennis Ross came and went because the negotiators believed they did not need him. They did it themselves because there was trust.  This also happened at Geneva, where we did not need Swiss mediation to find a solution we both wanted.  But this element of trust is missing now. This is why it is so important for a third party to be involved.
 
As for an Iranian nuclear attack against Israel, I think they will not do this.  Nevertheless, if they acquire the bomb, given their alliances with Hizballah and Hamas, this will make a peace agreement almost impossible.

Q: Would Israel be willing to take the lead and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and open up your nuclear weapons facilities to international inspection and say to Iran, "You do the same thing and we will all be safer."

A:  There is an article in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty agreement which is repeated in the Geneva Initiative which says that once there is peace in the region, the region should be a nuclear-free zone.  This is an Israeli commitment.

Q:   You have said that President Bush could help Prime Minister Olmert and his Palestinian partner bridge the gaps on the big issues and bring about an agreement in 2008.  Tell us what the next step would be. We often hear that there is a block in the Knesset that has consistently undermined peace initiatives of Israeli prime ministers.  Would the engagement of the U.S. change that dynamic? Or would it bring about new elections and perhaps even worse political turmoil in Israel?

A:  In my experience there have been huge differences between public opinion before and after an agreement.  Before the peace treaty with Egypt, 70 percent of Israelis were opposed to giving up the Sinai, while 70 percent were for it after the agreement.

Before the 1993 Oslo agreement, there was strong opposition in the Cabinet to talking to the PLO. The Likud had fought this for years. Yet when Olso was put to a vote, no one voted against it and only two abstained. I was astonished.
 
The Israelis and Palestinians on the street were overjoyed. Palestinians even embraced Israeli soldiers in the territories.  Perhaps such a moment won't come again because skepticism is so deep.  But if Olmert, notwithstanding his current unpopularity, makes an agreement with Syria, with the Palestinians, and an agreement with the Arab world that would bring Arab embassies to Jerusalem, the Israeli people would eagerly embrace this.
 
Even the religious and ideological parties would accept such an agreement.  For example, when the Geneva Accord was signed in 2003, a senior Shas politician told me he would support such an agreement even though it would divide Jerusalem and hand the Temple Mount over to the Palestinians. He said Shas would not offer support until an official agreement was in hand.  At that point, he said, it would be very difficult to vote against it.
 
What is mind-boggling in my view is the small distance between the parties on the unresolved issues.  The gaps have never been so small.  Paradoxically, as they have narrowed, fear and skepticism have grown.  In short, if there is an agreement on the table, I believe that both the Palestinians and the Israelis will support it.  So it is mistake for political leaders to be intimidated by opinion polls reflecting skepticism, which, if heeded, will prevent any peace agreement.
 
Thank you very much.


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