The key positive element of the Israeli-Palestinian understandings that are due to be formally presented today at a ceremony in Geneva is the effort to fundamentally change the state of the relationship between the two peoples. That is what distinguishes the draft document, formulated by teams headed by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, from the approach of both peoples' current leaderships, who are dealing with the conflict from a crisis management perspective rather than from a genuine desire to resolve it.
For more than three years, the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been embroiled in a conflict that has shed their inhabitants' blood and wreaked internal destruction on both societies. But despite the heavy price that both peoples are paying for their adherence to their mutual prejudices, they refuse to give them up. Many Israelis continue to believe that the Palestinians want to destroy them, and most Palestinians continue to insist that Zionism invaded their homeland in order to eradicate their national existence.
The practical methods of dealing with the violent reality that has developed since September 2000 derive from these psychological and ideological underpinnings: The Palestinians support violence in order to compel Israel to accept their positions, and the Israelis pay them back in the same coin in their efforts to defend themselves.
The last few days exemplify the standard behavior of both sides in the conflict: The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, set conditions for even holding a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon, for his part, scattered hints of increased flexibility and then retracted them. This dialogue was accompanied by violent actions that produced casualties.
In contrast to the limited nature of both leaderships' approach to handling the conflict - periodic negotiations, periodic bursts of violence, periodic responses to new pressures - the Geneva initiative attempts to grasp the bull by the horns and present both peoples with a comprehensive outline for a permanent-status agreement. This alternative is timely, both because it is intended to shake both peoples out of their resignation to the miserable status quo in which they are mired, and because it challenges their leaders to think in new terms and to propose fundamental solutions to the conflict. From this perspective, the Beilin-Abed Rabbo document has already achieved an important goal: It has spurred the leaders of Israel's political parties to propose their own plans for an agreement, and has compelled the heads of the various Palestinian political movements to define their own positions in relation to it.
The Geneva Accord is not without flaws. On the Israeli side, reservations worthy of consideration have been voiced about some of the document's details and about the credibility of its authors' claim that it indeed removes the demand for a right of return from the table. On the Palestinian side, there have also been those who voiced objections to certain components of the permanent-status agreement that the document proposes. But this criticism, however weighty it might be, should not distract attention from the main point: Well-known public figures from both peoples will today give declarative validity, under the aegis of important figures from the international arena, to an admirable intellectual and political effort to propose a comprehensive recipe for an end to the conflict. The role that peace-seeking Israelis and Palestinians must play is to influence their governments to conduct a practical dialogue inspired by the Geneva document.
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