The Cat's Meow

1. Razzle-dazzle

The Swiss tried very hard this week in Geneva: The chef of the Intercontinental Hotel prepared a Middle Eastern menu, the set designer put an olive tree on the stage, the Israeli partners brought a planeful of well-meaning people, the Palestinian partners arrived at the launch event without any difficulties. Everything was perfectly orchestrated to run as smoothly as a Swiss watch. But something still went wrong: Jibril Rajoub wasn't so keen on having his picture taken shaking the hand of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak; there was no great friendship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, no lifting of spirits. It was a highly calculated affair that was meant to generate support for the model of a final status accord crafted by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo and their staffs. But because of its cold, technical nature, it came off as more of a gimmick - a gimmick that is having an international impact and reverberating from the Jordan River to the Potomac, but still no more than a bit of media razzle-dazzle.

Peace is too serious an issue to be left to publicists; the spirit of public relations specialists seems to constantly hover over the Geneva Accord, emasculating it of its content and turning it into another ad campaign. Which is why the gathering in Geneva had the taste of Swiss hummus: a superficial show rather than a real human encounter, a programmed display and not an emotional connection, a sound and light show rather than a genuinely uplifting experience. The style that the organizers gave the event sealed its fate: It drew media interest in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority and, to a lesser degree, in other places, but it did not become a watershed moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It lacked soul and spontaneity, some kind of inner fire that would burst out and convince the leaders of the two sides that their nations have had their fill of the conflict and are truly ready to put an end to it. The event had all the power of an election campaign ad, not of a historical moment.

The Swiss patrons of the event are the ones who initially determined what kind of ceremony there would be. In the original planning, the event was going to be like a stodgy board of directors meeting with a list of speakers, each given a precise time limit. The Israelis wanted to liven it up a little, with some video clips, some musical interludes, and brief statements from "ordinary people." The Swiss hosts agreed. And so the event turned into an overly long tapestry of speeches and appearances by artists, with a number of off-key moments.

The video segments showing the "voice of the masses" in Israel seemed staged; the parallel Palestinian segments were reminiscent of Bolshevik recitations; an elegantly dressed young man introduced himself as a "representative of the poverty" in Israel and protested that the leaders of the two peoples are putting their national resources into weapons and destruction; a young Arab woman called for sexual equality. It was all as authentic as the artificially illuminated olive tree.

Geneva was selected to host the ceremony because it could not be held in Israel or in the Palestinian Authority territories. Yossi Beilin and his people say that the conference was held primarily to meet the needs of the Palestinian colleagues: They are the ones who need international support for their readiness to adopt a proposal for a final status accord. This was also the argument that persuaded Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to fund the event.

In fact, the event was also meant to serve the needs of the Israeli side: Among the group involved in the Geneva Accord, there was disagreement over when it should be held; the politicians in the group initially wanted it to be on November 4, to connect it with the anniversary of the Rabin assassination and to sear it into the public's consciousness as a continuation of the peace efforts of the late prime minister. The retired military officers warned that the choice of November 4 would be perceived as a publicity stunt. And also that first, copies of the Geneva agreement had to be distributed to every household in Israel. The event was postponed for a month.

On the eve of the event, Yasser Arafat pulled one of his familiar tricks: He gave a green light to protest demonstrations and angrily berated Yasser Abed Rabbo and his cohorts. Arafat had wanted to play a part in the event. Two of the Palestinian signatories decided to cancel their trips. Others did what they could to mollify Arafat. In the end, an agreement was reached: Arafat would provide Jibril Rajoub with a speech that he would give from the stage in Geneva. When the Israeli delegation learned of this, it objected. The Palestinians made clear that this was the condition that Arafat stipulated for their coming. The Israelis acceded, but extracted this modification from the Palestinians: Instead of Rajoub reciting Arafat's speech, it would be presented by the president of Bethlehem University, and only parts of the speech would be delivered.

This was the most blatant example of the difference between the approach of the two delegations to the ceremony: While not one of the Israelis mentioned Yasser Arafat, in either positive or negative fashion, the name of Ariel Sharon echoed in denunciation in the vast auditorium whenever it was uttered by the Palestinian speakers. While the Palestinians preached their version of Israeli injustices to the world, the Israeli speakers did not make any mention of Palestinian terror and its horrors. The Israelis were restrained and gentlemanly, and the Palestinians were blunt and aggressive. They also left some in the Israeli delegation with the sour feeling that they had not adhered to previous understandings about the text and spirit of the event.

2. Beilin answers back

The Geneva Accord risks being perceived as a huge gimmick that has no genuine agreement behind it. Right-wing detractors are already claiming that Beilin is misleading the public by presenting the understandings as a finished and accepted document on the Palestinian side. They point out that the English version of the document bears the title "draft" while the Hebrew version is presented as a final, agreed-upon version. People ask where the Arabic version is, and why it hasn't been distributed to every household in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and whether the document is only a draft or a final version of an agreement. Some on the right also point out that there aren't any signatures on the document, and so it is being falsely presented as being binding on its authors. Beilin is portrayed as throwing sand in the public's eyes, or as a sucker who repeatedly allows himself to get bitten by the Palestinian snake.

On the plane on the way to Geneva, Yossi Beilin challenged his critics: Which one of them has a better formula for solving the four main issues that his plan addresses: Israel's security (by the demilitarization of the Palestinian state); guaranteeing the Jewish character of the state (by separating from most of the territories and from the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; ensuring the state's democratic character (by ending the occupation); improving Israel's international standing (by garnering support for the plan). After the ceremony, his aides insisted that an Arabic version was disseminated in the Palestinian Authority, not from house to house because of logistical difficulties, but in the newspapers, and that it is totally identical to the binding English version. Authors of the agreement from both sides examined the Hebrew and Arabic translations and verified their accuracy.

Beilin learned some lessons from the Oslo Accords (which he believes were not really tried because of the interference of Benjamin Netanyahu) - to establish a mechanism for arbitration and compromise for settling disagreements that arise between the parties in the course of implementing the agreement; and to emphasize the need to end incitement. Beilin cites the preface to the agreement and the sections regarding arrangements for the Temple Mount to refute the argument that it does not make any mention of the Jewish people. He also rejects the arguments that say the document does not really do away with the Palestinian demand of the right of return, and that the very mention of UN Resolution 194 gives the Palestinians a basis for seeking to realize that demand. He explains that the Israeli side did agree to include mention of the UN resolutions that are important to the Palestinians, but in return, got their agreement to the statement that the proposed solution resolves the refugee problem once and for all.

He emphasizes that the document was deliberately given the status of a draft only, so that it would not be perceived as offering an official, final version. His aides note that the Palestinian side's commitment to the agreement is ostensibly greater than that of the Israeli side, because the Palestinian side includes ministers who are active in the Palestinian government while the Israeli side has no official government representatives. "What would they say on the right if three Israeli ministers signed a document like this, which they had formulated with a Palestinian group?" Beilin's people were asking the other day.

According to the Geneva understandings, about 100,000 settlers will return to Israel, and about 200,000 Palestinian refuges - now living in Lebanon - would be absorbed in various countries, including Israel. And thus the refugee problem would be removed from the international agenda. Israel would pay compensation for the loss of the refugees' property and the world would pay for their repatriation and rehabilitation. According to the calculations of Beilin's team, the cost of settling the two sides' claims would amount to $30 billion.

Shaul Arieli, who worked on the maps in the plan, said this week that even if it turns out, once the agreement is implemented, that the Palestinians have misled Israel, Israel could then take unilateral steps and would find international support for this.

3. Practical politics

Beilin, yesterday's nerd, demonstrated impressive skill in producing an attractive diplomatic idea and gathering international support for it. It remains to be seen if he also has the ability to translate his vision into the language of practical politics.

First of all, Beilin will have to maintain the cohesion of the group he gathered around him, which is not something that can be taken for granted. Then he will have to amass broad and stable public support for his idea. A Haaretz survey that found that 31 percent of the Israeli public expressed support for the Geneva Accord came as a pleasant surprise to him. Haim Oron said this week that if this level of support proves consistent, he and his friends will aim to increase it to 40 percent. If that goal is reached, it will mean that support for the agreement is coming not only from the far left, but also from Labor and Shinui voters. Therefore, at Beilin's headquarters, they're working on establishing a public movement to push for the implementation of the Geneva understandings.

The movement's objective will be to bring about the signing of an accord between Israel and the PLO that will bring the violent conflict between the two peoples to a total end. The movement will have to wage a big educational and publicity campaign to achieve the support of a majority of Israel's citizens for the Geneva initiative. Proposals have also been made to establish a similar movement in the Palestinian Authority. Draft plans for such a movement have already been drawn up.

There is one interesting statistic that is being taken into account in the formations of the plan of action: About 50 percent of Israeli residents of the territories are people of Mizrahi background who moved beyond the Green Line not for ideological reasons, but because the state's welfare policies applied mainly there. In other words, Beilin's movement is likely to argue that successive Israeli governments used financial incentives to draw Israelis to the territories, especially a weaker population that could not make it as easily inside the Green Line. This policy is still continuing, as the government is pulling apart the social safety net. In this way, Beilin will connect his diplomatic vision with his socioeconomic outlook and put up a buffer between the ideological settlers and the weaker sectors.

He took the first step in this direction on his way to Geneva. He invited Vicki Knafo to accompany him on the plane and sat her next to Danny Sanderson, David Grossman and Gila Almagor. His aides say this is another lesson of Oslo: To include the public in the process and not just hand it a surprise. This was not very convincing: Knafo served the interests of the event's publicists; and at the same time, she revealed the true face of the thing: It was her first trip abroad, but she did not see a thing. She was hustled from the bus to the plane and from there to the hotel and from there to the auditorium and then right back to the plane. Vicki Knafo was not on vacation overseas this week; she was a pawn in a cynical publicity game that is only damaging to the Geneva initiative's lofty goals.

4. Assault in Ramallah

Once again, the IDF couldn't restrain itself. Just like in the early days of Mohammed Abbas' (Abu Mazen) government, this week Israel also broke the relative quiet that had prevailed for some weeks in the armed conflict with the Palestinians, and launched an operation to capture Sheikh Ibrahim Hamed, head of the Hamas military wing in Ramallah. In the process, four Hamas men and a 9-year-old Palestinian boy were killed.

The security forces cited good and familiar reasons for justifying the assault: Hamad is near the top of Israel's wanted list, responsible for many serious terror attacks that claimed numerous victims. Who wouldn't be convinced? The same was true of Mahmoud Shawar, whom the IDF killed in July of this year, just a week after the announcement of the first hudna. This was during the tenure of Abu Mazen, and Israel supposedly wanted him to succeed. But the IDF and the Shin Bet saw an opportunity to apprehend Shawar and Ibrahim Yassin, head of the Tanzim's military wing in Qalqilyah, and Shawar was killed during the operation.

In response, the military wing of the Fatah threatened to resume suicide bombings. A week later, in the village of Burqin, Iyad Shalmish was killed in an Israeli military operation in which the objective was to arrest his brother, a wanted militant. The same thing happened a month later in Hebron: The IDF killed Mohammed Sidr, head of Islamic Jihad in the city. The Israeli security forces had very good reasons for wanting to get their hands on the two: Both had very unsavory pasts, to say the least. The IDF did not intend to kill them, the chief of staff explained afterward, only to apprehend them. They met their deaths resulted when they resisted arrest, hid and opened fire.

Then came the terrible bus bombing in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem and the unofficial cease-fire collapsed completely. The Palestinian terror organizations demonstrated yet again that they are keeping a bloody score with Israel: when Israel escalates its operations, they respond with greater savagery; when Israel maintains relative calm, they rein in their suicide bombers. Even in the armed conflict between Israel and the militant organizations, there is some kind of unwritten accounting that determines the scope of the violence. All that's left now is to see when Hamas will respond to this week's assault in Ramallah and with how much force.

And it's also unknown to what extent the IDF and the Shin Bet are acting on the basis of information or opportunities that come their way, and to what extent they are guided by the political echelon.

5. Assad's offer

After Syrian President Bashar Assad proposed that contacts be resumed with Israel for the purpose of reaching a peace agreement, serious consultations were held in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over how to respond. Following signals from Washington, it was decided not to slam the door in the Syrian leader's face, but not to seem overly enthusiastic about it either.

It's understood here that by making this statement, Assad was seeking to forestall sanctions against Damascus being enacted by the American Congress. Still, leaders in Jerusalem also realized that the American administration would look very kindly upon a stabilization of Israel's relations with Syria and Lebanon. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom learned this week that Europe would also like to see a positive Israeli response to the Syrian announcement. And so a balanced Israeli position was formulated: Openness to hearing Syrian proposals, while reminding Syria that it must cease providing aid to terrorists.

Ostensibly, one shouldn't expect the Israeli leadership to devote much effort to dialogue with Syria at this point. Officially, Israel is committed to the road map and cannot open up a parallel negotiating track with Damascus, but this option could be considered if the contacts with the Palestinians lead nowhere. But the more likely scenario at the moment is that an internal Palestinian agreement on a cease-fire will be presented to Israel as an agreement that it, too, will have to honor.