Sometimes, they say, hope shines brightest in the darkest hours. Palestinians and Israelis have never been further apart in the past decade, with nearly 3,000 people killed in the two years of the Palestinian intifada.
Yet "the dreamers," as some call them, are still busy preparing peace plans, as if all that is needed to bring peace to the Holy Land are a few intelligent position papers. Many of the peace plans are the work of academics and would-be politicians.
Lacking the authority to implement their plans, the authors are free to combine fantasy with wishful thinking. However, among the "dreamers" are some with sound political records, and -- perhaps more importantly -- they represent Palestinian-Israeli collaboration.
While the plans may have little chance of being implemented in the near future, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many examples where once-radical ideas slowly moved from the margins to the mainstream, finally becoming policy. Even the Oslo accords, which radically reshaped relations between the two parties and held out the prospect of peace, began in talks led by Israeli academics before the Israeli leadership offered its sponsorship.
Top on the list of "dreams" right now are the joint peace plans of Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, on the one hand, and Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh on the other. Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords and a former justice minister, recently quit the Labor Party and joined Meretz. Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority minister of culture and information, is considered among the more moderate Palestinian figures.
Ayalon is a decorated commando, former commander of both the navy and the Shin Bet general security service and an outspoken dove. Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, holds the Palestinian Liberation Organizatio's Jerusalem portfolio and is a longtime advocate of peace with Israel.
All four are respected figures, yet all represent a minority in their communities, without the power to initiate real change.
It's not always easy to find the differences between the plans. Both call for many of the same principles: a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian renunciation of the right of return and of terrorism, an end to Israeli control of Jerusalem's Temple Mount and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to Beilin, the main difference between the two documents is that the Ayalon-Nusseibeh blueprint serves as a declaration of principles, whereas the Beilin-Abed Rabbo paper goes into details, trying to continue negotiations that broke off in Taba nearly two years ago. Beilin and Abed Rabbo began working on their agreement shortly after the Taba talks ended.
"A few days after Taba, I told Yossi that had we had a little more time, we could have reached a final and absolute settlement," Abed Rabbo said. "Even today, I believe that never before in the history of the two peoples were they so close to an agreement."
Beilin and Abed Rabbo say they are again close to reaching an agreement -- but they no longer have the political influence to carry it out.
Both teams are still working on their papers, and want to publicize them after Israel's Jan. 28 election. Beilin is convinced that Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna would support his plan if he didn't feel obligated to take Labor toward the center to attract undecided voters. Both teams have refrained from officially publishing their papers, fearing that publication would cause more harm than benefit.
Though Labor recently chose a Knesset list that is more centrist than Mitzna, there are some indications that the left still maintains strong influence within the party. For example, the party's election platform for the first time will refer to Jerusalem just as "Israel's capital, including its Jewish neighborhoods." Gone is the traditional reference to Jerusalem as "whole and united," implying that Labor would be willing to relinquish Arab parts of the city.
Even former party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said that control over the "holy basin" -- the holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City -- would be negotiated among representatives of the three major religions, a far cry from the official Likud policy that no concessions will be made on Jerusalem.
Similarly, Palestinian moderates have published advertisements in the East Jerusalem media calling on the Palestinians to support the Israeli peace camp, specifically mentioning Mitzna and Ayalon. The ads are signed by The Popular Campaign for Peace and Democracy-Palestine, apparently a front organization for Nusseibeh's supporters.
The ads openly call for Palestinian intervention in the elections on Mitzna's behalf. "Mitzna is committed to the solution proposed by Ami Ayalon," one ad read. "Let us help him to implement its clauses." "Supporting the Ayalon document means evacuation of the settlements," another ad read.
The ads quote parts of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh document. For the first time, they say, the document includes "recognition of the Palestinian right of return," but specifies that Palestinian refugees will be able to return only to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel.
Previous, unofficial versions of the document had referred only to "recognition of the suffering and plight of the Palestinian refugees." The Beilin-Abed Rabbo draft refers to "a symbolic solution of the refugee problem," without specifically mentioning that the Palestinians give up the "right of return."
In any case, Abed Rabbo said, a worldwide plebiscite among Palestinian refugees will have to be held for them to endorse such a solution. For its part, Israel would give up control of the Temple Mount under the Beilin-Abed Rabbo plan, though it doesn't say so explicitly.
While such proposals may seem far-fetched given the current level of violence and terrorism, most Israelis and Palestinians believe their leaders one day will return to the bargaining table -- and they may just be looking for some fresh ideas to revive the peace process.
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