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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

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The Path to Geneva

Tikkun Magazine
May/June, 2004

By Yossi Beilin

This is the story of the thin ice. It was almost broken one hour before the signing of the Declaration of Principles on September 13, 1993, when Israel insisted on signing the agreement with the Palestinian delegation to Washington, and the Palestinians insisted it should be signed with the PLOuntil it was decided that it would be signed with both. It was almost broken by the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron on February 25, 1994; it was almost broken on May 4, 1994, when Arafat refused to sign the Cairo Agreement on Gaza and Jericho, but finally reconsidered; it was almost broken when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995; when four consecutive terror attacks occurred in Israel at the beginning of 1996; when Netanyahu opened the Wall Tunnel and blood was spilled on both sides in September 1996; on Nakba Day, as the Palestinians call it, in May 2000.

The ice was finally broken on September 29, 2000, after Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mountnot because the visit was any worse than all the other events, but because the ice was still thin, and we had not managed, despite all our efforts, to thicken it. Thickening the ice is the job of the peacemakers and believers, and when the ice breaks it is necessary to do everything to save ourselves from drowning. And afterwards, we must continue thickening the ice.

There is nothing more understandable than the desire to "expose" the reason for the Intifada, but there is also no chance of finding it. A cause we have certainly found, and perhaps if Sharon had not entered the Temple Mount, and if the Taba talks had been held in September or October 2000, it might have been possible to reach a framework agreement even before the elections in the United States. Perhaps if Sharon had not entered the Temple Mount, another event would have provided the spark that led to the new Intifada. There is a great difference between cause and reason, though. Sometimes, the absence of a cause prevents disaster, but we were never so lucky.

The Intifada seemed to reinforce the arguments of the Right. After all, Barak had come with the best of intentions, had offered the Palestinians an excellent deal, and they not only rejected it, but they took advantage of a violent incident on the Temple Mount to breach the agreements they had signed, and then used weapons received with Israel's approval in order to strike at Israelis. Barak, the Right says, did us a favor by exposing the true face of the Palestinians, and proved how correct we were all these years when we insisted, "There is nobody to talk with, and nothing to talk about." And further, the right-wingers say, in the course of the Intifada it has become clear how correct we were when we said that there is no real difference between the PLO and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that these are different faces of the same Palestinian goal: to put an end to the existence of Israel, whether by the "salami" methodtaking over territory "slice by slice"or by means of terror and defamation.

But this is only an appearance. Against all the proposals raised by the peace camp since the Six Day Warterritorial compromise, recognition of the Palestinian people's right to self-determination, approval of a Palestinian state, willingness to consider the PLO a partnerthe right wing's position has always been that there is nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side, that relinquishing the eastern part of the land of Israel (that is, Jordan) was sufficient, and that there was no need to compromise on the western part of the land of Israel as well. In their view, only forceful insistence on our rights would ensure our survival.

The Oslo process was designed to create a responsible addressee on the Palestinian side, to separate the pragmatic groups from the fundamentalists, to present principles for a permanent solution, and to implement, over a five-year period, an interim agreement in a format almost identical to that agreed on at Camp David in 1978 between Menachem Begin's Israel and Anwar al-Sadat's Egypt. In the correspondence between them, the parties decided to recognize each other and put an end to the violence. Self-rule was granted to the Palestinians at a stage earlier than that proposed by the Camp David accords, but territory was transferred gradually, while under the Camp David agreements it was to have been implemented all at once.

The strong police force under Palestinian self-rule was also set up pursuant to the Camp David agreements, which dealt explicitly with this issue. Israel approved the introduction of rifles into the Palestinian Authority, because without weapons it would have been impossible for the Palestinian Authority to function against the various opposition entities, particularly against Hamas, since over the years, despite our control there, the West Bank and Gaza had become veritable weapons depots. These rifles were also used by the Palestinian Authority to prevent terror activities which could have caused a great deal of damage to Israel. In any permanent arrangement, Israel would have no interest in leaving the Palestinian entity exposed to internal violence, with no means to maintain order. There is no doubt that as soon as the Palestinian police and security organizations took part in the Intifada, a pivotal principle of the Oslo Accord had been breached, but it would still be foolish to conclude that Israel should insist on an unarmed police force.

The contention that there has never been any difference between moderates and extremists in the Palestinian camp, and that this was exposed in the Intifada, is as false as the argument of Palestinian rejectionists that there is no difference between the peace camp and the extreme right in Israel, and that all Jews have the same goal. In this framework, whenever one side expresses itself moderately, the other has to claim that it is hypocrisy. The symmetry in this situation is fascinating, and is repeated in every single conflict of this type. When the second Intifada began, there were many people in Israel who wanted to forego the partnership. But the alternatives to the PLO are extremist, nationalist, and religious entities who refuse to recognize or to negotiate with Israel.

In fact, one of the most important steps in the Oslo process was the effort made to distinguish between the pragmatists and the extremists on the Palestinian side, between those who were willing to talk, and those for whom the very act of talking was considered a sin. Obviously, this process also led our side to sharp disagreement. So long as there was nobody to talk to, an interim arrangement, as had been originally proposed at Camp David in 1978, seemed far too abstract. But as soon as there was someone we could talk to, then of course there would be something to talk about. The Labor-Likud national unity government of the '80s could not have existed in the '90s for that reason, and the same was the case in the Palestinian campaccepting the Oslo principles led to a rupture in the PLO, the secession of organizations, boycotts. The pragmatic camps on both sides came together against the extremists on both sides.

When this Intifada erupted, there was a movement back to the barricades. Israel saw Fatah and Hamas announcing brotherhood and cooperation, and the Palestinians saw Shimon Peres and Avigdor Lieberman sitting at the same government table headed by Ariel Sharon, who promised a struggle lasting generations and a decisive move away from the permanent agreement.

Does this prove that although both sides have separate pragmatic and extremist camps, they are now fused into one and the truth has finally been exposed? Of course not. The true distances remain. The believers in peace must make a supreme effort to return to the separation between these camps that existed during Oslo, because that is the only road to peace.

Another argument holds that Barak turned over every stone, that the Palestinians rejected him instead of agreeing to his proposals, and therefore it is impossible to reach an agreement with them. But this is a contention that has been refutedin the 2003 Geneva Accord. Indeed, Barak did make very brave proposals, or, more accurately, Clinton made such proposals and Barak did not reject them. This was the most far-reaching position ever taken by an Israeli prime minister, not because Barak was the most moderate among them, but because he was the first prime minister prepared to enter talks on the permanent arrangement. He was the first who was forced to deal with real positions on borders, Jerusalem, solutions to the refugee problem, security arrangements, and the future of the settlements.

Since he did confront these issues, and surprised many with his courage to slaughter a few "sacred cows," he had to wait and see whether the Palestinians would accept or reject his offer. And if indeed it was rejected, their recalcitrance would be exposed to the world. But Ehud Barak did not turn over every stone, because a few months later, in January 2001, we went to Taba with directives based on the Clinton Plan, which were more ambitious than what had been proposed at Camp David. The Taba talks did not break down, and did not end in disagreement. They took place four months after the start of the Intifada, and after the talks, the elections in Israel were won by the extreme Right, which had no serious intention of returning to the negotiating table. The argument that it was only after Israel had shown its willingness to make a fair compromise with the Palestinians that violence broke out, drastically violating the Oslo Accord and the subsequent agreements, is correct, and requires a Palestinian response that was never given and perhaps never will be. But anyone who infers, therefore, that every stone has indeed been turned and the arrangement with the Palestinians is over and done withor that our partners in negotiations since the start of the process are no longer our partnersis wrong, and is misleading the public....

And as for exposing the true face of our opponent? This kind of exposure is valuable only in rare cases. Considering Barak's own past, there is no doubt that the head of the Intelligence Branch must try to ascertain whether a particular agent constituting the source of his information is a double-agent. There is certainly nothing more important than exposing a spy. But what about exposing an opponent? What would we have exposed of Sadat, had we wanted to, in the negotiations with him? Sadat, the young officer, enchanted by certain European dictatorships? Nasserist Sadat, who did not display any difference between himself and the populist dictator who led his people to unnecessary wars? Sadat, who was willing to accept the compromise proposed by Gunnar Jaring in 1971, which was amazingly similar to the Camp David agreements? Sadat, who caused the Yom Kippur War, the death of 2,800 young people of my generation, and the wounding of tens of thousands more? Or Sadat, the man with the pipe and the deep voice, visiting us in November 1977 (after the statement by the security system that this was merely camouflage for the preparation of another war), immediately becoming the most popular man in Israel until his assassination in 1981?...

Which Barak would be exposed if we wanted to do so? Barak the army Chief of Staff, or Barak the politician? The Barak who spoke at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, or the one who spoke at the Labor Party center? Barak announcing that the Golan Heights are of great strategic importance even in peace time, or Barak stating bravely before the inhabitants of the Golan Heights, over their shouts of derision, that he was willing to give up the Heights for peace? Barak fighting against acceptance of a Palestinian state, or Barak taking it for granted three years later? Barak stating that unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon was an unequivocal danger to the northern settlements, or Barak withdrawing from Lebanon over the protests of the military? Barak declaring on Jerusalem Day that the city would never be divided, or Barak at Camp David, two months later, considering the transfer of the Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian sovereignty and speaking thereafter of the greater Jewish Jerusalem?

And Rabin? If anyone had wanted to expose Rabin, would it be the Prime Minister whose advisor on the war against terrorism was the extreme right-winger Rehavam Zeevi, and whose security advisor was Ariel Sharon? Would it be the man who rejected King Hussein's proposal before the Rabat Conference in 1974 to reach territorial agreement on the West Bank? Would it be the opposition member who recommended to Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon that the water be shut off for the inhabitants of towns in Lebanon in order to tighten the siege? Would it be the man who called the "doves" of his own party "PLO lovers"? Or would it be the peace hero who shook hands with Arafat, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, who was murdered in 1995 with the words to the "Song of Peace" still in his jacket pocket, stained with his blood?

And Begin? And Peres? And Ben-Gurion? And Moshe Dayan? And many, many others who in the course of their lives showed many faces and made completely contradictory statements which they were passionately willing to defend?

Arafat is both leader and follower, initiating terror and concerned for the orphans of his fighters. He is the blustering speaker still using the language of the past, but also making speeches of peace and understanding. He wants it all and understands that he will only get a part. Arafat traveled to Amman in order to kiss Sheikh Ahmed Yassin after Netanyahu released him, and then put him under house arrest in Gaza. He called for jihad, and then explained that he meant the "great jihad," signifying internal challenge and devotion, not holy war. He stood behind operations that led to the murder of innocent Israelis, as well as operations by his own security organization that saved many Israelis, particularly after 1996including one potentially terrible operation that was prevented in Tel Aviv in 1999, at the end of Netanyahu's term. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and then promised a few years later to continue the Intifada until complete victory was achieved, but on the eve of the Passover festival he phoned Sharon to wish him a happy holiday. Is he the Arafat whom many Israelis call "a two-legged animal," or the one who is depicted as a likable, if bumbling puppet on "Hartzufim," a satirical TV show in Israel?

Perhaps it is the duty of the head of an espionage service to expose double-agents and spies. But a statesman's job is not to expose the person standing in front of him, it is to protect the national interests of his people. The Oslo process was an effort to shape circumstances. Previously, the Palestinians had objected strenuously to a long interim arrangement without agreement in advance (as was the case in the Camp David discussions with Egypt in 1978) on the principles of the permanent arrangement. If we had settled for "exposure," we could have shown the Palestinians as having no desire for an interim arrangementbut we wanted to achieve an arrangement, not exposure, and after interminable, difficult talks and crises, we did.

Ehud Barak exposed nothing, although he thought he had, to the joy of the right wing. Arafat remains a multifaceted leader who wears many masks, like most other world leaders. In certain circumstances or conditions, under agreed formulae, it was possible to reach agreements that committed him to internal rupture and severe struggles within his own house. Under other circumstances, he maintained his adamant refusal. He is neither a pacifist at all costs nor a terrorist at all costs. He is still the man who can move his people, more than anyone else in his camp, even when prime ministers like Abu Mazen or Abu Ala are appointed, and he can also make surprising and brave decisions. No honest person in Europe was impressed by Barak's "exposure" of Arafat, even if there were many who appreciated the Israeli leader's courage. Arafat remained as he had beena problematic and difficult partner, wearing a military uniform and making provocative speeches, with whom, by means of sensitive management, it would be possible to reach not only interim agreements, but even a permanent agreement. The group around him, aged sixty, fifty, and forty, some of whom went to university in Israeli prisons, and some of whom completed academic studies in the United States and England and other countries around the world, consists of people interested in the establishment of a Palestinian state, living normal lives, and developing democracy and culture, professional bureaucracy, and a physical infrastructure alongside Israel. This is the group facing up to Islamic fanaticism, religious madness, and those sending suicide bombers. There is no need to occupy ourselves with exposure. The picture is well known to us all, even if the right wing in Israel will try to argue that Dr. Nabil Sha'ath is the other face of Ahmed Yassinjust as the Palestinian extremists will argue that Yossi Sarid is the other face of Benny Elon, the Moledet MK and an open advocate of "transfer." Our future here depends, among other things, on our ability to maintain the alliance of the moderates, the pragmatists, the people who believe that we were born to live, not to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of false dreams....

It is in Israel's national interest to ensure the completion of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before an Arab majority is created in the region west of the Jordan. Without an agreement the region will soon reach a boiling point. An Arab majority would not agree to be ruled by a Jewish minority, and a Jewish minority would not agree to relinquish the existence of a Jewish state. Those interested in preventing such a confrontation, both Israelis and Palestinians, must make a supreme effort to draw up an agreed border and reach a political agreement.

It is in Israel's national interest to reach an arrangement with a partner representing the Palestinian people. For twenty-five years we looked for a negotiating partner, then found one in the PLO. This has been a problematic partnership, in the course of which there have been crises and successes. When the second Intifada began, there were many people in Israel who wanted to forego the partnership. But the alternatives to the PLO are extremist, nationalist, and religious entities who refuse to recognize or to negotiate with Israel. We have an interest in the existence of a strong partner, with a broad span of control, who can fulfill its commitments....

Some foresee for Israel another hundred years of living by the sword, believing that those with faith in peace are nave and do not understand the region in which they live. They explain constantly that if we had a European neighbor, all would be welltheir word is their bond, their promises can be relied upon, and their agreements are engraved in stone. But these doubters have short memories, and they are the nave ones. First of all, anyone who prepares for another hundred years of war will find himself within a short time part of a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority. Anyone encouraging more generations of violence might just as well say to other Jews, "Do not come to Israel," and to young people, "Do not stay here." If the state of Israel, instead of being the safest place for Jews in the world, becomes the most dangerous place for them, the only people who will remain here will be those without the ability to leave. That is an absolute distortion of the Zionist ideal, and although it sounds very nationalistic and proud, it is in fact a kind of post-Zionist concept. As for the short memorywhat was done to the Jewish people in Europe only sixty years ago has not been done to us anywhere else in the world. The constant complaint about the absence of a suitable partner merits not only the response, "Physician, heal thyself," and the recognition that it was Israel in Netanyahu's time who rejected an agreement, but also an historic reminder of the agreements that were indeed reached.

The Geneva Agreement ... may be a glimmer of light for those who believe in peace. The agreement, reached by a significant group of Israelis and Palestinians, proves once again that there is someone to talk to and something to talk about. If we can muster the necessary courage, we can transform this agreement into reality.

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