Pro Bono

Attorney Ram Caspi says he could be prime minister, but that doesn't interest him. His only aim is to achieve peace with the Palestinians - and he has a plan in mind,

Last week, a three-day series of joint Israeli-Palestinian meetings was held in the British Office in London. For high-powered attorney Ram Caspi, it was his first-ever encounter with the other side. He doesn't speak Arabic, and the last time he visited the territories was 12 years ago, but a few months back, he came up with a peace plan that he is sure he can sell to the Palestinians.

"Until now I hadn't approached anyone," Caspi says. "I was ashamed. I waited for them to approach me. Only close friends knew that I am dying to conduct the negotiations with the Palestinians. Now, at the age of 62, I feel I have the right to come out and say that I want the job."

Is the top percentile of the country starting to amuse itself with peace agreements?

"I have other ways to amuse myself. The subject of peace is not an amusement, it is an aspiration. The only contribution I can make to the country, other than paying taxes, is to try to help on the issue of peace. I am not an architect who leaves behind buildings that are monuments to inspired thought. I hope to leave after me a peace agreement - if not, the only thing I will leave will be five lines of eulogy in Ha'aretz. If I am given the task, I will take leave of absence from the firm, for however long it takes. I am ready now to drop everything - just give me half an hour to clean out my desk."

The meetings between the Israelis - Caspi, Ami Ayalon, Udi Netta, Viki Shiran, Henrietta Calev-Dahan - and the Palestinians - Sari Nusseibeh, Fathi Shkaki, Musa Badiri, Riad Malki and others - were joined by a delegation sent by the president of the Czech Republic. The first hours of the meeting took place in a tense atmosphere. The Palestinians expressed their anger at what Israel is fomenting in the territories; the Israelis talked about the terrorist attacks. Caspi spoke for more than an hour on Saturday afternoon.

Why do you think you will succeed where others have failed?

"Let me try. I hate to fail. I will do everything in order to succeed. I come from the business world: I am not burdened with suspicions, and I will try to solve the problem. I only need the authority to reach a settlement. I will be able to present things to the Palestinians better than those who have done it so far. I am more sensitive than most politicians. When I walk the streets of Jerusalem and visit the Mount of Olives, I have tears in my eyes. When I see an ordinary person suffering, it pierces my soul."

What is your connection to the Palestinians' suffering and to the intifada?

"It has to do with me, too. If I go to a cafe, I have to look around. A few months ago, I buried my mother on the Mount of Olives and we had to rent an armored bus for the mourners. My father and I drove in my car, which is not armored, through the Old City and it didn't affect me in the least. I believe in a guiding hand."

What do you have in common with people like Palestinian Authority security chiefs Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub? Will you be able to find a common language with them?

"I can talk to the president of the United States and to a cab driver in the same way: direct and at eye-level. I have no problem talking to the president of the Supreme Court and with my secretary in the same way. I am capable of talking to anyone and everyone. I will get inside the Palestinians' head. A lawyer's way of persuasion is by presenting the situation. I understand the Palestinians and where their red lines run."

The Palestinians had the feeling that former prime minister Ehud Barak was patronizing them. How will you do things differently?

"If I had been at Camp David for 11 days, I would not have behaved like Barak, who spoke to [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat on one occasion for one hour. In his place, I would have bathed with him and drunk with him - I can't say shaved with him because Arafat doesn't shave - but I would have eaten hummus with him all the time. I would have removed the barriers. We don't believe the Palestinians and they don't believe us, and when there is a state of total mistrust, you have to talk. I would not talk to him arrogantly. And I would not push him through the doorway, as Barak did when they were entering the cabin with [former U.S. president Bill] Clinton. You don't push the leader of another people. If I had been there, I would have allowed Arafat to enter first, and if he had insisted that I go first, I would have told him `Age before beauty.' He is older than I am, but I am better-looking."

And that is what would solve all the problems of the region?

"The problem was that the Camp David summit was not prepared properly. The usual thing is that all the subjects are agreed on, except for 3 or 4 percent of the issues, and then the president of the United States knocks the others on the head and finishes off the three percent. Israel went to Camp David with 80 percent of the conflict unresolved. The peace treaty with Egypt was prepared well - Moshe Dayan held advance meetings, and the sides met only after that. But [then-prime minister Menachem] Begin was a leader of a different kind: he was capable of making any decision."

(Retorts a Barak confidant who was involved in the negotiations: What Caspi says is nonsense. There were many back channels ahead of the conference, and the summit "was prepared from our point of view as well as it could have been.")

In short, Caspi will approach the Palestinians the same way he approaches his clients as a lawyer conducting commercial negotiations.

"I have been engaged in negotiations for the past 35 years," he explains. "In every case, I try to understand the viewpoint of the other side. What my client tells me is important, but not always relevant. I have to see what the other side will accept. If someone wants to buy a company and I know that the owner will never agree to sell it unless conditions A, B and C are met, I try to fix up A, B and C in order to reach an agreement. The same thing happens in compromises. When I appear in court and try to persuade the client to compromise, he might respond, `Why should I compromise? The judge smiled at me - he will be on my side.' I try to explain that just because the judge smiled at him doesn't mean he is going to win the case.

"In the end, most trials end with a compromise, and sometimes it's hard to persuade the client. He wants to fight, and when you reach a compromise both you and the client have the feeling that if only we had gone on with the legal proceedings, we could have obtained a better outcome. In our case, the verdict was given before the compromise. The intifada, with all its bloodshed, is the verdict. Now we have to reach the compromise."

Caspi worked on the plan for five years. He has not committed it to writing or to a computer file. In fact, there is no computer on his desk and he doesn't cruise the Web, either. "When people send me e-mail, I say I don't understand how it works and ask them to send a fax. That's not so easy, either. It took me a long time to learn how to work a fax." The peace plan is wholly in his head. "I think about it all the time," he says.

The Caspi plan

For the past 35 years, Caspi has been practicing law in the firm of which his father, Micha Caspi, was a founder. The firm, which has 33 lawyers, including Caspi's brother, Asaf, and his son, Guy, is ranked 18th in Israel by Dun and Bradstreet. The firm's clients include major business names such as the Ofer brothers, the Nimrodi family, Shmuel Dankner, Benny Steinmetz and Alfred Akirov. "The clients will send me flowers when they hear that I left the firm in order to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians."

Caspi has made three attempts in recent years to merge his firm with others, but was unsuccessful. So, having failed to hook up with other firms, will he be able to hook up with the Palestinians? "In the end I will merge my firm," he promises. "In a business merger there are a lot of ego problems that don't exist in political negotiations."

His meeting with Palestinians followed a turnaround in his political views. "Until the Yom Kippur War, I believed in the policy of not giving back even an inch of land. Moshe Dayan said that Sharm al-Sheikh without peace was better than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh, and I accepted that. After the war, we understood that we had all failed and that the failure stemmed from a feeling of strength and power, as though we were living here alone, and we forsook those dreams very quickly. Now we have to forsake a few more opinions if we want to achieve true peace. There is a war being fought here over the same land, and there can be two solutions: either Greater Israel, in which the Israelis and the Palestinians live - though that will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state because there will be a Palestinian majority - or the division of the country between the two peoples."

According to Caspi's plan, Jerusalem will be divided into three parts. West Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, and in the Old City there will be joint Israel-Palestine sovereignty, with each supreme religious council being given exclusive possession of its holy places. The law that will apply in the Old City will be the British Mandate law that was in effect there until 1947. If constitutional amendments are needed, they will be introduced by joint agreement. Israeli and Palestinian judges will sit on the bench in the Old City. In the event of disagreement between them, a third judge, from the international court at The Hague, will decide the matter at hand.

"From my experience," Caspi notes, "as soon as judges know that someone else has the authority to decide, they reach agreement." The Old City will be declared a free-trade zone in which only municipal levies will be paid, thus bringing about an economic boom. There will be free access to the Old City: "Everyone will pass through electronic gates, as they do at the Western Wall."

Before Ehud Barak went to Camp David, Caspi met with him and explained his plan for Jerusalem to the prime minister. Barak's daughter, Michal, articled in Caspi's firm. As prime minister, Barak sometimes drew on Caspi's aid. In one case, Barak sent him to mediate with Shas chairman Eli Yishai during one of the crises with that party, which was in the coalition. "Barak told me that he talked over my plan with the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, who told him that it wouldn't work." (The Barak confidant says that the reason Barak did not talk to Caspi about the subject is that he didn't want to talk about his plans in broader circles.)

The Palestinian refugees will be settled in the Palestinian state under the Caspi plan. The eight major industrialized nations will finance the peace process to the tune of $50 billion - half to the Palestinians and half to Israel - over a period of 10 years. "Instead of the refugee camps, houses and neighborhoods will be built, in the same way that we absorbed new immigrants. Joint industrial zones can be established along the border. We have manpower here that will be able to work, but not to earn as much as the Israelis."

Is that the right way to start negotiations - on a non-egalitarian basis?

"I see no way that they will ever earn as much as we do. We are part of the West. Their standard of living will always be lower. I want them to have a minimum basket so that they will be able to maintain themselves. If the Palestinian has a small home and a small garden and a little car, he will have something to lose. A person who has nothing to lose, who lives in sewage and wastes, commits suicide."

According to the plan, a rail line will link Gaza and Hebron. A fast train will link the two sections of the Palestinian state "and nothing terrible will happen if they build a highway there, too - they won't throw bombs at the Negev from it." The Palestinians will have to forgo the right of return. "In fact, this is not a Palestinian concession but an Israeli concession," Caspi says. "The settlements are the implementation of the Jewish people's right of return. If Israel is ready to forgo the Jewish people's right of return, the Palestinians will have to forgo their right of return."

The omelette settlements

The settlements will be evacuated by the omelette and egg method. "You can make an omelette out of an egg, but I have yet to see the chef who can make an egg out of an omelette," Caspi says. "The settlements that are an omelette - those where the situation can no longer be reversed - will not be evacuated. They include the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem, the city of Ariel, the Gush Etzion settlements and Latrun. Whatever is not an omelette will be evacuated. In return, we will give Israeli territories in the southern Mount Hebron area and in the Gaza Strip.

"All the settlements that are deep inside the territories will be evacuated and the territories will be handed over whole and fully intact, not demolished as we did in northern Sinai [in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt], because we do not want to demolish buildings that can assist in the rehabilitation of the Palestinian state. It is our historic task to help them rehabilitate. Anyone who declines to be evacuated will be evacuated by force, but for that a leader is needed who will be ready to utilize force here. It is untenable for the State of Israel to be hostage to the settlements."

Caspi has experience in evacuating settlements. In 1982, he was one of the lawyers who handled the evacuation of the northern Sinai region. He represented the moshavim there and received tens of millions of shekels in fees. In 1994, about a hundred families from the Golan Heights asked him to represent them in the event of an Israeli withdrawal from that region. In an article he published in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir under the headline "Ram Caspi will bring peace minus 5.75 percent lawyer's fee, minus office costs, minus value added tax (which is partly offset)." Yehuda Meltzer asked, "In the big picture and without stinginess, with true generosity, how much will the deal cost me?"

A lot, Caspi says. "The resolution of the settlements question has to be generous and the compensation must be fitting. [Yitzhak] Rabin once complained to me that there were four villas at Morasha Junction that were interfering with the flow of traffic. I told him that I could get the villas expropriated, but when the owners come and ask for compensation, be very generous, give them 10 times what they ask. The majority of the settlers work in Israel and live in the territories; some have businesses in the region. They will have to be given houses in Israel, compensation for moving, compensation for their businesses, and the amount has to be more generous than the arrangements in Sinai.

"In some cases there, the authorities treated the settlers harshly. People went there on a national mission and they all acted within the law. Some people will be evacuated for a second time and the compensation has to be double."

How much are we talking about?

"I don't know. Maybe a million dollars a family, maybe only half that. A settlement that is no less good than what they had in Sinai, with an addition."

Isn't it the case that if your plan is implemented, lawyers, and you probably among them, will make a bundle?

"Why not? With pleasure, and we will pay taxes on what we earn."

Caspi believes in evacuation and compensation as the way to political agreements. In September 1997, he suggested to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he evacuate the settlers of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud by invoking the 1943 Land Ordinance (Acquisition for Public Purposes), which allows the authorities to expropriate land in return for financial compensation. "If you expropriate [the land]," he wrote to Netanyahu, "you will consolidate your status as being in charge of the peace process."

Netanyahu did not reply. However, his confidant, the journalist Uri Dan, attacked Caspi in the daily Ma'ariv: "This devil Hamas has many advocates," Dan wrote.

Into the deep end

One of the first people to hear details of Caspi's plan was MK Ahmed Tibi (Arab Movement for Renewal), who was an adviser to Arafat. "I never met Palestinians but I did meet and speak with Muslim Arabs who are citizens of Israel," Caspi says. "I see no shame in the fact that the Arab public [in Israel] wants to contribute to the solution of the Palestinian problem. MK Tibi could act as a first test for the ideas that were put forward in my plan. He said that the plan made sense and that he assumed the Palestinian leadership would accept it, but that he could not speak in their name."

Tibi, for his part, says that there are a number of difficulties with the plan: "The Palestinians will not accept any proposal that does not allow for territorial ownership in East Jerusalem. Similar ideas were raised at Camp David and rejected. Another issue is the refugee problem. The problem will not be resolved by economic means. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 [of December 11, 1948] talks about return and compensation. There are some who will prefer to live in the Palestinian state, others will stay where they are, and some will return to inside the [1967] Green Line. It is out of the question that Israel, which created the refugee problem, will not take part in its resolution. The State of Israel must recognize the moral wrong it did in connection with the refugees. That is what I told him. Our positions differed on Jerusalem and the refugees."

During their conversation, Tibi says, "Caspi asked me to arrange for him to meet with senior Palestinian figures, including Yasser Arafat. I do not rule out that possibility. The meeting could take place in the near future. Caspi is a deeply involved individual who is familiar with the conflict. He is plugged into power centers. It will be no problem to set up meetings for him with senior officials in the Palestinian leadership."

People who have engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians liken Caspi to a novice swimmer who wants to jump into the deep end of the pool. "In general, Caspi's direction is the right one," says the Labor Party's Yossi Beilin, "but because he does not know all the details of the negotiations, he is putting forward ideas that have already been placed on the table. I am not sure that he is very expert, but I don't blame him, because there is no way he could know everything that went on in the negotiations. His plan is very similar to the Clinton plan. There is absolutely no point today to reinventing the wheel. There are two possibilities today: either go for the Clinton plan or to pick the plan apart piece by piece. Overall, his plan is realistic, but the monetary issue has already been discussed with the Americans, and in every solution Israel will have to bear a significant part of the economic burden. Financing can come from countries such as Norway and not only from the eight major industrialized countries."

Can a lawyer who is experienced in commercial negotiations generate momentum in the negotiations with the Palestinians?

"Experience in that sphere is not necessarily the decisive answer."

The problem is not a dearth of initiatives, says attorney Gilad Sher, who was a member of the Israeli delegation in the talks on the 1995 interim agreement and one of the top negotiators with the Palestinians from 1999 to 2001, during the period of the Barak government. The problem, he says, "is to get one of the initiatives accepted in practice by the other side. During the hundreds and thousands of negotiations, proposals, plans and initiatives were formulated in different formats. I did not find any new element in the Caspi plan that was not discussed and dealt with in our negotiations with the Palestinians in the past, and especially in the negotiations on the framework agreement for a permanent settlement in the era of Barak and Clinton. The problem of this region is not a lack of plans, it is the lack of a courageous leadership that will be willing to reach painful compromises."

Attorney Shlomo Molcho, who was Netanyahu's envoy to the negotiations with the Palestinians, says that political negotiations are very different from commercial negotiations. "We are used to drawing up commercial contracts. In political negotiations there is a different degree of responsibility. Those negotiations do not revolve entirely around money, but around people's lives. They are not held in the lawyer's office; you travel to foreign countries, you have to be alert and focused all the time. You have to be able to manage a team of people with political, military and legal expertise. It is definitely not a one-man show. We are only the tip of the iceberg, under which is a well-oiled system. You have to be able to keep a secret, you work under a brutal set of pressures: both mental pressure, because there are very high demands made of you, and physical pressure. Sometimes you work two or three months without sleeping at night."

Caspi is not worried. "It's too bad for anyone who doesn't sleep at night and works all the time. You have to sit comfortably, start in the morning and finish at a reasonable time toward evening and then go and rest, because that's how your head works well. I am not willing to work 24 hours a day. I work as much as necessary within the accepted framework of hours. A person has to think clearly when he determines our fate for the next hundreds of years."