December 4, 2003
Geneva Accord Stirs
After its gala launch in Switzerland this week, the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal known as the Geneva accord is rapidly picking up international support.
Monday's festive launch was designed to generate international and grass-roots pressure on leaders on both sides to take bold peace steps.
However, can the Geneva accord, reached by people who hold no office, become the basis for a real peace deal and break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock? Or, alternatively, will leaders not ready to go the Geneva route, but unwilling to be seen as obstructionist, be pressured into making different peace moves of their own?
Popular support for the Geneva proposal seems to be growing in Israel, but the government remains adamantly opposed. On the Palestinian side, the agreement's main advocates have run into strong and sometimes violent opposition.
While major peace brokers like the United States and European countries are showing growing interest, none has yet adopted the Geneva draft as an official program or as a basis for negotiation.
The long, detailed document (www.heskem.org.il/heskem_en.asp) deals with such controversial issues as borders, Jerusalem and refugees. It has sparked fiery debates in Israel and among the Palestinians on the nature of a final peace deal.
It also has led to a flurry of parallel diplomatic action. Last Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dispatched his son, Omri, along with other Knesset members and government officials, for talks with Palestinians near London. Other Likud Party legislators took part in a weekend seminar with Palestinians in Madrid, and U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns returned to the region in an effort to restart the official peace process based on the "road map" peace plan.
Most significantly, Sharon himself made new overtures to the Palestinians.
The longer that other plans like the road map remain stalled, the more the Geneva alternative will beckon. That could generate a new dynamic leading to increased international pressure on both sides to cut a deal along the lines of the Geneva accord.
In Israel, sentiment on the Geneva proposal are mixed. A poll published Monday in Ha'aretz showed 31 percent of Israelis support it and 37 percent oppose it. Despite the opposition of the Likud-led government, 13 percent of Likud voters surveyed supported the agreement.
The architects of the deal were delighted. Haim Oron of the Meretz Party declared that the negotiators never dreamed the deal would win so much support so quickly. Yossi Beilin, the main Israeli architect of the plan, highlighted the multipartisan nature of the support.
The Israeli sponsors of the plan acknowledge that it is not a done deal, and they say their main purpose in making it public is to create a mind-set for peace. They say the understandings show there potentially is a Palestinian partner, and they set forth in the proposal the kinds of concessions that will be needed for peace.
Sharon's ministers counter that the Israeli concessions in the document are excessive and that the Geneva exercise - and the international support given to it - put the elected government in an invidious position. They maintain that the Palestinians are using the Israeli left to lay down new starting points for future negotiations and to embarrass Sharon by portraying him as too hard line to cut a deal that others could.
For his part, Sharon has responded by hinting at a readiness to dismantle some Israeli settlements, coupled with the threat of unilateral action if the Palestinians spurn his overtures. The subtext is clear: Sharon is no uncompromising hardliner, but he's not going to wait around for someone to try get negotiations going for a Geneva-type deal.
So far, none of the parallel initiatives has borne fruit, at least in public. No agreement was reached in the London and Madrid exchanges even on basic issues like ending terrorism, and both forums degenerated into arguments. The key to immediate progress lies now with Burns, the U.S. envoy, who is trying to set up a first meeting between Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Qurei.
On the Palestinian side, neither Qurei nor Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has fully endorsed the Geneva deal, although Arafat did send a letter of qualified support to the Geneva ceremony. Israeli analysts believe that Arafat is playing a game: He doesn't offer outright support for Geneva, so as not to be bound by its provisions and to be able to push for more. Yet he also doesn't reject it outright, casting Sharon - who opposes the deal outright - as the rejectionist.
The Geneva ceremony highlighted growing international support for the accord. Nobel Peace Prize winners and Arab dignitaries attended, while former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent greetings.
It is not inconceivable that at some point down the road, international players will seek to call a peace conference with the Geneva accord as the basis for discussion.
Already, the launch in Geneva is having reverberations in Washington. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) flew to Geneva for the signing and is expected to introduce legislation next week supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, including the Geneva accord. A similar resolution was introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Nov. 25.
The Washington chapter of the left-wing group, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, hand-delivered copies of the resolution to each lawmaker's office on Capitol Hill Monday. Beilin and Abed Rabbo will be in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers and to talk up their resolution to the U.S. media.
The Bush administration said Monday that it "welcomed" the Geneva plan, but officials expressed continued support for the road map. Official U.S. policy is not to allow other plans to deflect attention from the road map. The road map "is the only plan on the table," Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Monday.
Part of the Geneva proposal's charm is that unlike the slow, step-by-step road map, it envisions a one-step end to the conflict. But that could prove illusory, because the Israeli and Palestinian powers that be reject some of the accord's main provisions and because closing the remaining gaps could prove problematic or even impossible.
For their part, the Israeli sponsors of the Geneva document intend to step up efforts to build domestic and international support.
The agreement is sure to become the main political message of a new left-wing party called Ya'ad, to be formed soon by a merger of Meretz and Beilin's Shachar group. United around such a clear peace message, the group soon could be challenging Israel's ailing Labor Party for primacy on the left.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this story.