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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

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A New Hope

by Judah Ariel
November 2003
New Voices, Editorial

The giant banners above the 100,000 Israelis rallying in memory of Yitzhak Rabin read, "The Geneva Initiative - A New Hope." After three years of a Palestinian intifada that has brought suicide bombings, an imploding economy, a stalled peace process, and collapsing spirits to Israel, this new hope brought out the largest gathering of Israelis since Ariel Sharon's election. They came to say yes to peace. They know that Israel faces an existential choice: find a way to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza or, when Palestinians soon become a majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, give up on the Zionist dream of being a democratic Jewish state.

For the past two years, a group of Israeli political, cultural, and military leaders have been working on a series of understandings with Palestinian leaders on how to reach a permanent peace agreement. The Israeli group includes leaders from all sides of the political spectrum, such as former Likud Member of Knesset (MK) Nehama Ronen, former IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and Labor MK Gen. Amram Mitzna. The Palestinian group, led by former minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, is made up of leaders close to the Palestinian Authority leadership, among them a group of younger local Fatah leaders who hold great sway over the Palestinian street. The group's work has been supported by the Swiss Foreign Ministry, hence the name: "The Geneva Initiative."

From a diplomatic perspective, the Geneva draft agreement can only be seen as a coup for Israeli interests. It includes, for the first time, Palestinian recognition of Israel's character as a Jewish state (as opposed, merely, to recognition of a state called "Israel"), and Palestinian agreement that among the options for Palestinian refugees, there will be no large-scale return of refugees to Israel. A vast majority of Jewish settlers outside the 1967 border will be able to remain where they are, including those in Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion.

The sections of Geneva that may sound like concessions by Israel are, in fact, gains as well. By relinquishing control of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel frees itself from the existential risk posed by Palestinian demographics. For the majority of moderate Palestinians, the Geneva Initiative provides the incentives to triumph over the extremists: their own state in the West Bank and Gaza with appropriate land swaps; a capital in a shared Jerusalem; and the chance to build a viable Palestinian economy. The initiative has even received the backing of Secretary of State Colin Powell who, in a letter to the Geneva initiators, wrote that "projects such as yours are important in helping sustain an atmosphere of hope."

For the signatories, however, the exact details of the agreement are less important than the message it sends. I was in Israel recently, meeting with many of the Geneva participants. Each of them told me the most important implication of the initiative was that, counter to prevailing wisdom among both Israelis and Palestinians, there is someone to talk to and there is something to talk about. There is a partner for peace and there is a plan. The Geneva Initiative reminds both societies than an agreement can be reached for an end to the conflict.

Recent weeks have seen an upswing in criticism of the Sharon government's failure to bring security to Israel, and its failure to provide any vision for peace. IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said that Israeli military actions in the territories are pushing more Palestinians to terrorism. Four former heads of the Shin Bet (General Security Services) warned that the Sharon government has no strategic aim and that Israel faces a "catastrophe" if it doesn't make moves for peace soon. That Palestinians will soon be a majority in the areas controlled by Israel has become another major concern. A recent poll found that 83 percent of Israelis are greatly worried about the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The reaction of supporters of Ariel Sharon's government to the Geneva Initiative, according to the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman, "had all the earmarks of a ruling party that knows it has not made any creative initiatives for peace since coming to power, and hates being exposed." They have attacked Geneva's participants for committing what they call "treason," for going behind the government's back, for putting Israeli interests at risk, and for not being legitimate negotiators on Israel's behalf. The criticism has been directed solely at the signatories of the initiative, because the Israeli right-wing has no response to its content and its message of hope. Being so ideologically tied to the continued Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, the Likud and their extreme right-wing allies don't know how to respond to a genuine chance to make peace and improve the security of Israel.


The signatories of the Geneva Initiative are now engaged in a campaign to have their draft agreement adopted as the basis for negotiations by both the Israeli and Palestinian governments. They are negotiating with the Arab League for an agreement that all Arab states would normalize relations with Israel if a treaty like Geneva were actually signed. They are negotiating with NATO and the European Union to make Israel a candidate for membership if the accord were to go into effect. The aim is to present Israelis (and Palestinians) with a clear choice for peace. To gain support for the Geneva Initiative, the initiators are sending copies of the draft agreement to every Israeli and Palestinian household. As the architects of the best chance for peace in three years, they deserve our support.

Judah Ariel is a senior at Brandeis University.
©2002 New Voices
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