The Geneva Accord
Can hope be pinned on a new round of secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
Settling any dispute requires two things: first, that the protagonists reach an agreement which brings the conflict to an end and, second, that they negotiate the terms of the agreement, if not in the name, at least with the backing of, a legitimate political authority capable of implementing it. In other words, conflict-resolution involves both the substantive and procedural aspects of the dispute.
At the Camp David summit held in 1999 between Yasser Arafat and then- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak under the sponsorship of former US President Bill Clinton, the negotiating parties clearly fulfilled the procedural requirement. But because they were unable to agree on a number of the more contentious issues in dispute, the summit ended without an agreement on substance. Four years later, an agreement on substance has apparently been reached between prominent Palestinian and Israeli figures, crowning secret negotiations they have been conducting on an unofficial peace track that did not involve the legitimate Israeli government. While this means the agreement does not satisfy an essential procedural requirement, it is an indication that even the stickiest points of contention are amenable to a settlement acceptable to both sides. Known as the Geneva Accord, the agreement was initialled in draft form in Jordan last week, and is tentatively scheduled to be signed in its final form on 4 November in Geneva, on the anniversary of Rabin's assassination by an Israeli far-right extremist eight years ago.
We now know that the architects of the agreement have been meeting secretly in Switzerland for at least two years to come up with what they are presenting as blueprint for a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Negotiations began from the point at which they were broken off in Taba in January 2001, when the time constraint imposed by the imminent end of the Clinton presidency, just days away, prevented the negotiating parties from finalising their deliberations. But they had managed to break some important new ground, which the architects of the Geneva Accord took into account in their own negotiations. they also drew on previous peace initiatives, notably, the "ideas" Clinton came up with in 2000 after the Camp David talks failed, and the proposal put forward by Yossi Beilin and Abu Mazen in 1995.
But the Geneva Accord, a 50-page document whose full text has not been published yet, introduces new ideas which go further than any previous initiatives, particularly concerning the following key elements. First, in respect of the emotionally charged and politically explosive issue of Jerusalem, the document adopts the formula proposed by Clinton, which is that "what belongs to the Jews should go to the Jews and what belongs to the Palestinians should go to the Palestinians." The Geneva Accord envisages a division of the city along those lines between the two sides, and talks of handing over most of East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty. It relinquishes the idea of dividing sovereignty vertically between the Palestinians and Israelis in respect of the site revered as Al-Harram Al-Sharif by Muslims and as Temple Mount by Jews, with the former wielding sovereignty over the site and the latter under the site, which the Jews allege was built over the ruins of Solomon's Temple. Instead, there will be a horizontal division of sovereignty, where the Israelis will acquire sovereignty over the Wailing Wall and the Jewish quarter, while the rest of the Old City (approximately three-quarters of its total area) will be under Palestinian sovereignty. A furious debate broke out over the southern part of the Temple Mount where Israeli excavations are now underway, and it was finally decided that UNESCO would be given the authority to supervise that historical site, where no further excavations will be allowed.
As to borders, it was decided to adopt Clinton's idea which is to return 97.5 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, while allowing Israel to retain some of its settlements around Jerusalem but not in the Jordan valley. Palestinians will be compensated for settlements that are not dismantled by territory in the Mount Hebron area. That means that the borders between the Jewish and Palestinian states will be along the Green Line that separated the two parties before the 1967 War, with modifications described by the Israeli side as "slight", aimed at addressing Israeli security concerns. The document specified that once it is signed, the agreement will be final and no further claims from either side will be accepted.
But support for the Geneva Accord is far from unanimous. Although Yasser Abed Rabbo, who led the team of Palestinian negotiators, declared that the Geneva Accord enjoyed the support of the Palestinian authority, the PLO envoy to last week's Islamic Conference in Malaysia, Farouk Kaddoumi, told reporters that the PA cannot be implicated in an operation that does not involve the Israeli government. No doubt his reluctance to endorse the accord was due in large part to statements made by one of the two top Labour Party politicians involved in its drafting. According to Amran Mitzna, former party chairman, the agreement contains, "for the first time, an open and official recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people". In an article published in Ha'aretz, Mitzna describes the initiative in which he took part "as a step more important than the declaration of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948". Accused in given right- wing Israeli quarters of treason, Mitzna declared that the Israeli leader who would implement the accord will be remembered in history as the man who launched Israel as a democratic and Jewish state, while the creation of Israel in 1948 was only a unilateral step. "Now we will have guaranteed a state with a stable Jewish majority. Moreover, we will have released Israel from the 220 thousand Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem, thus further consolidating the Jewish majority in Israel."
According to Mitzna, Israel will specify the number of Palestinian refugees it will be able to absorb within its frontiers to an International Committee on Refugees currently being set up. As to the right of return, although it refers to UN Resolution 194 which allows refugees to choose between return or compensation, the Geneva Accord makes their return contingent on Israel's consent. In other words, as Israel will decide who to let in on a case by case basis, refugees will not enter Israel under a right of return. Moreover, adds Mitzna, "What is more important in the decision is that it is final, written and not open to interpretation."
But for all Mitzna's protestations to the contrary, Israel's right-wing establishment sees the Geneva Accord as detrimental to Israel's interests. Writing in Ha'aretz, Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a member of the Likud Party, warned that "Israel will agree to the return of 'only' several tens of thousands of Palestinians to its territory. The method is well-known. First, you open a narrow crack in the door, and then you swarm in. In the meantime, one of the Palestinian participants has already announced, contrary to what the Israelis are saying, that officially the demand for 'the right of return' has not been withdrawn."
The Israeli architect of the accord, Yossi Beilin, has categorically denied that anything in the agreement can be construed as upholding the Palestinian right of return. Speaking on Israeli Radio, he said that "No Palestinian will enter Israel under a 'right of return'. There will be nothing like this. This does not exist in any document. If Palestinians keep the hope in their hearts, hope cannot be uprooted from the heart, but there is no right of return in this agreement and there will be none." Israelis, according to Beilin, would eventually come to view the agreement as best answering their own vital interests. "Even if it is not today or tomorrow, within a relatively short span the Israeli public will become convinced that this is the best plan for it. The alternative can be much, much worse if within seven years, this nation cannot be a democratic and Jewish state."
While some of the details of the agreement reached in Switzerland remain unclear, the general consensus is that it is in essence a tradeoff. In exchange for the Palestinians agreeing to renounce their right of return (more precisely, limiting the exercise of the right to the Palestinian state), the Israelis agree to relinquish their sovereignty over the Temple Mount. In a cautiously optimistic assessment of the deal, Labour Party chairman Shimon Peres said, "If it is true that the Palestinians have relinquished the right of return and that they recognise Israel as the state of the Jews, the Geneva Accord can be visualised as adequate for talks between two governments willing to negotiate with one another."
Palestinian sources say several annexes to the accord have not been completed yet and that, contrary to Israeli media reports, it will not be finally signed before the end of Ramadan. They strenuously deny that Palestinians have relinquished their right of return or that Israel has been given the status of the state of the Jews, which would implicitly deny any given identity to the Arabs of Israel. It is difficult to say which statements more accurately reflect the real positions of the parties and which are for local consumption. But if there is one aim that the two parties have in common, it is to disprove that Israel has no Palestinian partner with whom it can strike a deal.
Sharon is more interested in highlighting the differences that still exist between the parties to the Geneva Accord than the issues on which they managed to reach agreement. That is the greatest danger threatening the whole process. The opposite line is to intensify dialogue, to prove that it is fruitful, and let Israeli society gradually digest the fruits it reaps, without giving Sharon the opportunity to claim that Israel's legitimate government is ignored.
The real question for the Arabs is whether they should become actively involved in promoting the Geneva Accord, which is sponsored by the Israeli left, or whether they should adopt a wait and see attitude, which can only work in favour of the Israeli right. In other words, should they try to prove that peace is a viable option and that Resolution 242 can be applied, or should they maintain a passive posture towards what could well be a new window of opportunity? But before they can answer the question they must first decide whether peace is, in the final analysis, a strategy, or merely tactics.