Corridors of Power / The Genie of Geneva

1. What the bottom line says

The Geneva plan does not include an explicit concession by the Palestinians of the right of return. The Geneva plan is also not a signed treaty. The Geneva plan still needs the completion of many appendices in the details of which God and the devil are likely to meddle. The document whose birth was announced this week by Yossi Beilin and his group, together with Yasser Abed Rabbo and his team, is still just a declaration of intentions. A great deal of good will and mutual trust is needed so that the interpretation given it by both sides will be identical.

First of all, it is necessary to clarify that no real agreement was signed at the Dead Sea last weekend. Not only because the participants at the meeting had no official authority to sign any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but also because they chose not to have their names appear on the document they formulated. Instead, they preferred to sign their names to an accompanying letter addressed to the Swiss foreign minister, in which they draw her attention to the attached agreement. In other words, the joint signatures are not on the formulation of the agreement, but on a technical letter that directs attention to it.

This distinction can be seen as pettifogging. After all, what are procedural matters compared to the huge achievement ostensibly inherent in the fundamental agreement on settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was achieved between the two groups? However, the pretension to reaching a contractual agreement determines the rules of the game by which the agreement is judged. If the two sides did not content themselves with a handshake to clinch the diplomatic deal they reached, but worked for over three years on formulations, the product must be judged by the language they determined for it. And they chose legal language, arguing over words and phrasings. The fact that their signatures do not appear on the bottom line of the document could be interpreted as hesitation about putting themselves firmly behind it; prima facie there is an opening for disassociating from it.

Moreover, the accompanying letter says that the formulation is final and no changes can be made to it. The seal of the Swiss government, in whose safe the document has been deposited, gives this further validity. At the same time, both groups know that they still have a lot of work to do in order to formulate the many appendices without which the document is but a skeleton with no flesh and sinew. Beilin and Abed Rabbo hastened to announce the draft of the agreement, without even having begun the bargaining over the appendices. They did so, they say, at the urging of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who told them that the conflict is in a dangerous situation in the absence of any diplomatic content to nourish contacts between the two sides.

The result is a document that contains potential for disagreements when the appendices are discussed. Beilin believes that the negotiators have insured themselves against such a development by not transferring disputed issues to the appendices, which are supposed to be entirely technical in nature (for example, the delineation of the powers of the multinational force or the criteria for the amount of compensation to be paid to refugees), but this assumption will tested in the application. The Oslo agreement and its appendices taught the opposite lesson.

In light of the disembodied nature of the plan, the raging attack on it by the prime minister and his henchmen is even more astonishing. They, who are threatening Iran and warning Libya, bombing Syria and crushing Jenin, were frightened by 44 printed pages that suggest to Israelis and Palestinians that they think differently and describe to themselves a reality that is entirely different from the one in which they are now floundering.

2. How to build a support group

The seeds of the plan sprouted in Yossi Beilin's unflagging mind back when he was justice minister in Ehud Barak's government. When he returned from the Taba summit, which tried to save the Oslo agreement from the ruins of Camp David, Beilin felt that he had to prove to himself, and to others, that it was indeed possible to reach a compromise agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. At Taba he understood from Abed Rabbo that he felt the same. The two men believed that the two sides were missing an historical opportunity because of time pressure and insufficient preparation. This was what caused the talks to fail, they felt, not any objective inability of the two sides to reach compromises because of basic conflicts of interest and contradictory expectations.

The intifada was already underway when the two met at the offices of the newspaper Al Quds in Jerusalem in February 2001. Beilin told his colleague that he would not join the government that Ariel Sharon was about to form after the electoral defeat of Barak and the Labor Party, and that he intended to devote his time to completing the agreement that failed to materialize at Taba. Abed Rabbo agreed to join the effort and said: "Let's prove to the world that we have not lost faith."

The process was not systematic. Sometimes weeks elapsed between meetings. Sensitive issues - like the status of Jerusalem and the refugee problem - were discussed in different frameworks (Beilin with Feisal Husseini, until he died; Beilin with Nabil Sha'ath. At once stage Abed Rabbo authorized lawyer Rith al-Omari to represent him at the talks. Beilin, for his part, delegated work to his aide, Daniel Levy, the son of Sir Michael Levy of Great Britain). The meetings were also accompanied by other Palestinian experts, all of them from the professional team the Palestinian Authority uses in its contacts with Israel. Beilin reinforced his professional support group with military, legal and economic experts, among them senior reserve officers in the Israel Defense Forces Gideon Sheffer, Giora Inbar, Shlomo Brum, Doron Kadmiel and Shaul Ariel, as well as Dr. Menachem Klein, Prof. Arie Arnon and others.

The first move in the contacts was to expand on the Taba documents, but after a while the sides came to the conclusion that this direction led to a dead end. Thus the effort focused on formulating a new plan. The irregular format of the talks was derived to a large extent from the armed conflict, which often led to the postponement of meetings, for reasons both of access and state of mind.

Beilin and Abed Rabbo kept tabs on what was happening in face-to-face meetings in which they reviewed the state of the talks on each of the issues. The meetings were usually held in the World Bank building in A-Ram and the adjacent hotel, but sometimes the two squeezed into a car near the roadblock and went over the drafts.

At the outset, Beilin took care to ensure an international umbrella for the initiative. He and Abed Rabbo briefed United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and later on, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and former president Jimmy Carter. Beilin and Abed Rabbo decided to give the document a different status than that of the Beilin-Abu Mazen document: not another secret and noncommittal position paper, but a practical and public plan of action surrounded by a belt of public support.

An important breakthrough was achieved at a meeting in London in February of this year, when the two sides reached agreement on borders and security arrangements. In recent months the pace of the discussions increased (some of them in conference calls), centering on the territorial issue.

These developments accelerated the building of support groups. On the Palestinian side, Abed Rabbo was joined by senior politicians (Fares Kadoureh, Nabil Kasis and Hisham Abed al-Razek), and he also succeeded in enlisting the support of some of the heads of the Tanzim. On the Israeli side, Beilin sought to hide himself behind an impressive circle of public activists and intellectuals: not only writers (Amos Oz, David Grossman), a representative of the religious sector (Zvia Greenfield) and academics, but also politicians from the moderate left and the center (MKs Yuli Tamir and Avraham Burg of Labor, Haim Oron of Meretz, Eti Livni of Shinui and Nehama Ronen, a former Central Party MK). He failed in his attempts to enlist Yehuda Lankri and Dan Meridor.

So as not to afford the initiative a clandestine character, Beilin reported on it to Dov Weisglass when he was appointed head of the Prime Minister's Bureau. He told him that the moment the formulation of the document was completed, he would be glad to show it first of all to Sharon. Beilin received Sharon's reaction a year and a half later: Last week the prime minister compared Beilin's actions to consorting with the enemy behind the government's back.

3. How to share sovereignty

At the end of 2001, Beilin was invited to two debates with Edward Said at the University of Geneva. At the airport he was met by Dr. Alexis Keller, who told Beilin that he was the one who had initiated the invitation, after having read Beilin's impressions and analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He introduced Beilin to his father, a retired diplomat and wealthy banker. Beilin told them about his peace initiative with Abed Rabbo. The young Keller was enthusiastic, contacted the Foreign Ministry in Bern and obtained an official appointment to accompany the talks on behalf of the Swiss government.

Keller did not know what he was getting into. He came to the region for the first time in his life and was exposed to the terror attacks, the IDF's responses and the terrible human suffering caused by the conflict. During Operation Defensive Shield he went back and forth between Tel Aviv and Ramallah and in this way enabled the two teams to stay in touch.

At another stage in the talks, Keller hosted Levy and Al-Omari in his home and enabled them to work comfortably on the emerging draft. He persuaded Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to take the initiative under her auspices, and indeed representatives of the Swiss government came to the region and followed the progress of the negotiations. The Swiss involvement was also translated into financial support that allowed the teams to make use of experts and better equipment. For example: the maps on which the sides agreed are at such a high level of detail that at the meeting last week at the Dead Sea there was an argument over exactly where the border would run on a plot of land where four homes and a school stand.

In advance of the meeting at the Dead Sea, Beilin made his coalition public. Among its members are Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and MK Amram Mitzna (he joined after he resigned from his position as head of the Labor Party). The effort that Beilin made to adorn the coalition with people from the center and the moderate right was not successful: Only Nehama Ronen remained as a fig leaf. The Shinui people were frightened by the boss, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, who attacked the agreement and its fomenters even more furiously than Sharon. There were crises in the discussions in Jordan, especially about arrangements on the Temple Mount and Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall and its environs.

At the instructions of Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians insisted on not assigning Israel sovereignty over the Jaffa Gate and the road that leads from it to the Wall (such sovereignty is maintained at Zion Gate and Dung Gate and the roads leading from them to the Wall). Secular people, like Haim Oron, found themselves speaking heatedly about the Jewish people's connection to the Temple Mount and parts of the Land of Israel beyond the Green Line (pre-1967 border).

The participants in the meeting asked themselves who would sign and in what manner: All those present agreed to add their names to the letter addressed to the Swiss foreign minister, which drew her attention to the example of a permanent- status agreement. Beilin relates that at the signing there was great excitement. People wiped away tears. Three fainted. One of them was Dr. Alexis Keller.

4. Who holds the key

Article 7 of the plan deals with the solution to the refugee problem and there, ostensibly, is the concession of the right of return. This is a long section (there are 14 sub-sections), of which the first and main paragraph states: "The parties recognize that UN General Assembly Resolution 242 and Security Council Resolution 194, and Article 2B in the Arab peace initiative, concerning the rights of the Palestinian refugees, represent the basis for resolving the refugee issue and agree that these rights are fulfilled according to Article 7 of this agreement."

The other sub-sections detail the practical principles for solving the refugee problem (compensation, absorption in various countries, including Israel in accordance with the average absorption by the other countries, the promise of Israel's sovereign authority for determining how many refugees it will absorb, and more). The Israeli group is depicting these formulations as a historical development that was achieved with hard work: The Palestinian group demanded mention of the principle of the right of return, but the Israelis refused. Finally there was agreement on the above formulation, which outlines a way to a practical situation of the refugee problem.

From a formal point of view, the message from the Dead Sea may be a mirage. The mention of Resolution 194 and the Arab peace initiative (the Saudi initiative that was approved in Beirut at the Arab League foreign ministers' conference in March 2002), is a large needle's eye through which the Palestinians will be able to thread the demand for return in the future. Resolution 194 says, among other things, that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." The Arab League calls for "Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194."

For years, the Arab world has seen Resolution 194 as the supreme international affirmation of the Palestinian demand to return to the territories of the Land of Israel from which they were uprooted as a result of the 1948 war. Its mention in the Dead Sea document reaffirms this. Even at Taba, Beilin submitted a far-reaching proposal for solving the refugee problem that mentions 194. As in January 2000, yesterday too Beilin argued that Resolution 194 does not recognize the right of return but talks about "the wish to return" of those who are prepared to live at peace with Israel. As he sees it, the resolution was passed in the context of the emergence of refugeehood. It relates to the situation as it was in 1948, and it is not to be implemented, in the sense of the realization of the right of return, in the reality of the 21st century. Nice, but do the Palestinians buy this interpretation?

In the Geneva initiative, the sides agreed to relinquish the declarative part that presents the background to the creation of the refugee problem, and thus bypassed irreconcilable differences of opinion. The document proposes solving the problem in a practical way. Beilin said yesterday that it was mutually agreed that the implementation of Article 7 of the agreement is the realization of the rights of the Palestinian refugees and that it is the guarantee of the elimination of the problem once and for all from the agendas of the two peoples. But Article 7 mentions Resolution 194, which says that Palestinians who are interested in doing so will be permitted to return to the places in the State of Israel that they left. Of this Beilin says that the key to Israel's control of the situation is in the provision that states that it is given the sovereignty to decide whether it will absorb refugees and how many. Maybe.

Interest in the specific formulations of the plan, however, should not conceal the main point: The Geneva initiative presents the Israeli public (and the Palestinians) a palpable alternative to the miserable situation in which they are sunk. In their hearts, many Israelis know that the outline in the document is the only possible solution. The proposal for an agreement could spark the needed debate on the image of the State of Israel, its borders and values. The next mission for Beilin and Abed Rabbo is to demonstrate to the two peoples the reality that the agreement creates, with its costs and its benefits.