This time around, the Military Intelligence and Mossad eavesdroppers do not deserve commendations for exposing a secret meeting between Israelis and Palestinians; after all it was Yossi Beilin's group itself that last week provided the defense establishment with the information about its next rendezvous with the Yasser Abed Rabbo group.
Members of Beilin's group asked the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Major General Yosef Mishlav, to speed up approval of the territory residents' requests to leave for Jordan. The Israelis took into the consideration the fact that word of their request would reach the ears of the former coordinator, Amos Gilad, and then his boss, Shaul Mofaz, and from there to the big boss in Jerusalem.
It's impossible to know what Sharon wanted to achieve by means of his public slamming of the initiative last week. Did he assume that its exposure would undermine the agreement in the works? Or did he simply jump at the chance to incite against the left in the hope of diverting attention from real problems? He certainly didn't expect his speech at a municipal election rally to turn into a sales pitch for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
The fears of the organizers of the initiative that the exposure would cause the Palestinians to get cold feet dissipated at the Movenpick Hotel on the scorching shores of the Dead Sea. One of the Palestinian participants informed the group of Israelis in passing that they owe a special thanks to their prime minister for the impressive Palestinian presence.
The man said that Sharon's attack on the Israeli left-wingers had upgraded the trip to Jordan in the eyes of the Palestinian press, transforming it from just another banal meeting into true political negotiations. The criticism voiced by former prime minister Ehud Barak further boosted the popularity of the Beilin-Abed Rabbo initiative. Instead of the usual condemnation of concessions to irrelevant Israelis, the Palestinians found themselves being praised in their press for their success in waking the Israeli opposition from its coma, and also annoying Sharon and Barak.
Prof. Arie Arnon, one of the heads of Peace Now and one of the pioneers of the initiative, says that the Palestinian delegation to Jordan had been the highest-ranking one ever to have taken part in the series of meetings. Up until the very last minute, Arnon had a hard time believing that a team that enjoys the support of figures at the very heart of the pragmatic establishment in the Palestinian Authority - first and foremost, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia - would sign the agreement.
In Arnon's opinion, Sharon's attack gave the final push to a strategic decision that was slowly brewing among the Palestinian leaders; and after lengthy hesitation, these leaders were good enough to reveal all their negotiation cards to an Israeli group that is not authorized to offer them a thing.
According to Arnon, the pragmatic leaders of the PA understood that by hiding their positions (particularly with regard to the right of return of Palestinian refugees - an issue that until now had been vaguely formulated) from the Israeli public, they were causing it uncertainty and eroding its hopes for peace.
The Tanzim's stamp of approval
Alongside the well-known, somewhat-establishment figures of the ministers, Abed Rabbo and Nabil Qassis; the map people, Samih al-Abed and Bashar Jum'a; the expert on Jerusalem, Dr. Nazmi Shubi; and jurist Raith al-Omri, who serves as Abbas's political advisor, the discussion hall in the fancy hotel also boasted important faces relatively new in the joint forum. Jamal Zakut represented the leadership of the first intifada generation; Prisoners Affairs Minister Hisham Abd al-Raziq was there for the thousands of detainees and their family members; and General Zoheir Manasra, former governor of Jenin and head of preventive security in the West Bank, represented the governors' lobby and the security establishment.
The most intriguing characters were "the Fatah young guard," Palestinian Legislative Council members Kadura Fares and Mohammed Horani. The two, who joined the forum just three months ago, came armed with the Tanzim's stamp of approval. They said they had also received the blessing of their comrade, prisoner Marwan Barghouti. Their signing of the agreement is evidence that the leaders of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, those who protested the Camp David understandings of 2000, are ready for a settlement, as well as a succession struggle.
This struggle is likely to begin even before the Swiss have time to organize the signing ceremony in Geneva. The Palestinians were constantly monitoring the latest reports coming out of Ramallah about the deepening crisis between Yasser Arafat and Ahmed Qureia. According to a report coming in from the Muqata, Qureia emphatically informed Arafat that if Nasser Yussef is not appointed interior minister, he won't serve as prime minister. According to the same report, the threat did not move Arafat much. He has already decided that the next prime minister will be Nabil Sha'ath, whose reputation is built primarily on being Arafat's yes-man. Palestinian representatives at the hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea said that if Sha'ath replaces Qureia, when he takes the same road as Abbas, it will be the end of Arafat. There's a limit, they said, to what they are willing to put up with, even from Arafat.
Hiding Yossi Beilin
A few months ago, when Abbas's advisor, Raith al-Omri, and Yossi Beilin's advisor, Daniel Levy, formulated the clause on the Palestinian refugees without the threatening phrase, "the right of return" (not even to a Palestinian state); when the gaps between the map of Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli and the map of Samih al-Abed began to shrink; and when Dr. Menachem Klein and Dr. Nazmi Shubi came up with a solution to the problem of Jerusalem's Old City, the time came to think about selling the agreement. Beilin has long realized that to his regret, most Israelis would hesitate to accept a glass of cold water from him, even if they were dying of thirst in the desert.
Beilin therefore began a search for sales representatives who could market an agreement that hands over 98 percent of the West Bank to the Arabs, plus another 2 percent of Israeli territory. He wanted to escape the narrow confines of Haim Oron of Meretz, Arie Arnon of Peace Now and Ron Pundak of the Oslo Accords, and return to the political center and the Labor Party. Doves, retired army personnel and politicians not identified with the left won special attention, and the team took on former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former MK Nehama Ronen and MK Eti Livni (Shinui).
Retired general Amram Mitzna, still bearing the title of Labor Party chairman, was considered a promising acquisition; and with senior reservists Gideon Sheffer, Shlomo Brum and Giora Inbar, the team appeared to be as ready for war as it was for talks. The picture was balanced by writers Amos Oz, David Grossman and Zvia Greenfield, economist Yoram Gabay and Labor MKs Yuli Tamir and Avraham Burg.
Not all the above managed to attend the Dead Sea meeting, which was the group's first media test. Before leaving the hotel, there came a decision to distance Beilin and the other politicians from the media. Nehama Ronen and Giora Inbar were sent to the front. The media strategy held out for just a few minutes. The urges of most of the politicians, especially those who just recently joined the group, got the better of them in the face of the microphones and cameras. Beilin was the only one who maintained his obligation of silence. The veteran group members bit their lips.
Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh have learned already that the hardest work begins after the signing of the agreement. The marketing of the Geneva Accord is expected to be no less difficult. While the right-wingers practically ignored the initiative of the former Shin Bet security service chief, when it comes to Beilin, they don't let up: They won't let him hide behind the generals. Beilin was forced to sweat to persuade even his former patron, Shimon Peres, not to attack the initiative. What helped to a great extent was the sharp words that Peres' nemesis, Ehud Barak, directed at the agreement.
Yosef Lapid has no intentions of opening the gates of the center to the Geneva Accord and pulling Shinui out of the Sharon-Eitam-Lieberman coalition. With the help of Minister Yosef Paritzky, Lapid taught Beilin that his investment in Shinui's dovish lawmakers was a mistake. One call from the party leader sent Eti Livni in search of cover. She found it in the accord's refugee clause. The agreement makes no mention of the right of return, but Livni couldn't accept the fact that it mentions "the rights of the refugees" (which could be interpreted as their right to compensation).
The cabinet ministers' attack on the Geneva Accord poses a tough challenge to the Swiss government. The Swiss have begun preparations for the signing ceremony in the form of an international conference. Jordan, Egypt, Norway, Belgium, Japan and Canada have promised to send representatives to the ceremony; and the Swiss are now courting the leaders of the Quartet. It will be interesting to see whether the latter risk publicly supporting a peace agreement on which the Israeli prime minister has declared war. Former U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter, whose people helped push the initiative behind the scenes, has promised to come. Some of former U.S. president Bill Clinton's peace team will also go to Geneva. But the Swiss, like the Israelis and Palestinians, know just how important it is for a representative of the current U.S. president to be at their sides. Until now, the only American to get close to the talks has been the deputy consul in Jerusalem, Jeff Fletman. Purely by chance, he spent last weekend with his family at the Movenpick Hotel at the Dead Sea.
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