The Israeli Text and Context of the Geneva Accord

by Shiko Behar , Michael Warschawski | published November 24, 2003

The Geneva Accord, the latest unofficial framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace made public in mid-October 2003, has not become the basis for official negotiations. But the initiative has already been successful in one respect: it has uncorked as many vocal hopes as it has protests among Israelis and Palestinians, even though the Israeli government has rejected it and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has not formally endorsed it. Essentially a repackaging of President Bill Clinton's peace plan of late 2000, the Geneva Accord stipulates several basic tenets upon which to finalize a permanent peace agreement.

The Geneva initiative calls for serious critical scrutiny from those who are interested in a lasting peace—one that is as just as possible—between Israelis and Palestinians. Its negotiation involved an impressive number of prominent figures, headed by Yossi Beilin, a former minister in Israeli Labor governments, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, until recently the PA's minister of cabinet affairs and a major player in past official talks. As of the present time, the Geneva Accord is the most far-reaching draft document agreed upon by mainstream Palestinian and Israeli politicians. However, in a manner reminiscent of the Clinton-era initiatives, this seemingly bold document is inherently flawed. It is also being portrayed in misleading—and ultimately self-defeating—ways by its Israeli drafters.

Double Urgency

Under the accord, Israel is allowed to legalize and retain settlements in the occupied West Bank that house roughly 300,000 settlers, including all the post-1967 Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem; in exchange, the Palestinians receive equivalent territorial compensation from Israel. The Palestinians are granted sovereignty in the territory gained by the land swap and in the remaining parts of the West Bank and Gaza, including the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. This sovereign Palestinian entity remains non-militarized. Security for the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the holy places in Jerusalem, is overseen by a permanent international force while the site's non-security aspects fall under Palestinian control; full Jewish access to the site is granted. While Palestinians made refugees in 1948 are to receive some compensation, it is up to the sole discretion of Israel to decide how many refugees—out of a total of over 4.1 million registered with the UN—will be allowed to return to their homes in Israel.

This clause constitutes a massive compromise by the Palestinian side with regard to the right of refugee return—though not its total abandonment. In this respect, opposition among Palestinians to the document is legitimate not only from the political and moral standpoints but also from the vantage point of humanitarian and international law. To justify this concession, the Palestinian participants in the Geneva process point to a double urgency that presently dominates other issues in the Israeli-Palestinian political arena.

The first is that time is running out for an agreed-upon solution: in the near future, there might well be nothing substantial left to negotiate, given Israel's continued settlement of the Occupied Territories, and Israel's construction of a wall inside the West Bank that is, in effect, enforcing a system of apartheid. The second urgency results from the increasing conviction among the Palestinian and Israeli publics that no partner exists on the other side. Hence, the Palestinian negotiators argue, it might soon become impossible to persuade Palestinians and Israelis that some sort of negotiated solution to the conflict can be reached. The Israeli participants of the Geneva process share this feeling of double urgency. This is why they justify the importance of their initiative by highlighting its potential to reverse the spiral of (Israeli) despair, or at least to stop it.

Lessons of Oslo

Though the Geneva Accord's prospects are uncertain, another Palestinian minister, Ghassan al-Khatib, echoed many commentators when he said that it is "creating useful noise" in Israel. Coming after three years of no official negotiating initiatives from the Sharon government, and amid outspoken criticism of Sharon's crackdown in the Occupied Territories from Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and four former Israeli intelligence directors, the Geneva initiative has the potential to interrupt the rightward drift of Jewish Israeli public opinion. But analysis of the accord's impact must take into consideration the experience of the 1993 Oslo agreement, which also seemed to promise peace, and the disintegration of that initiative in the second half of the 1990s.

Many who thought that the Oslo accord would produce a peace that was as just as possible limited their analysis to the text, leading to their premise that the agreement met the minimum aspirations of the Palestinian people. Although the Oslo agreement did not come close to meeting these aspirations, it still could have been a modest starting point for an Israeli-Palestinian peace that satisfied the very basic needs of Israelis and the Palestinians (only in Gaza and the West Bank)—provided that Palestinians and Israelis had understood the text in a similar manner and provided that they handled the negotiations in good faith. Regrettably, this was very far from being the case.

Whereas the Palestinian negotiators seemed genuinely intent upon reaching what they termed "historical compromise" based on UN Security Council Resolution 242—which meant renouncing nothing short of 78 percent of their initial national demands for all of mandatory Palestine—Israeli politicians used the Oslo document to further consolidate their colonial grip over Palestinian lives and land. Throughout the "peace process," existing settlements expanded, additional ones were built and the number of settlers more than doubled. These facts lead to a single conclusion: Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres intended from the outset to exploit the asymmetrical balance of forces between the occupying Israeli state and the occupied Palestinian society to impose on the PA a conception of peace which rested on continuous domination.

Many observers of the Geneva process overlook the fact that the 1990s in Israel were primarily a period of left-Zionist rule, rather than a period ruled by the Likud and the ultra-nationalist right. Between Rabin's election in June 1992, and Sharon's overpowering of ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in February 2001, there were nearly six full years of government by the Labor Party and the left-leaning Meretz Party. Contrary to the prevailing perceptions, then, it is the Zionist left—rather than the right—that bears the principal responsibility for the failure of the "peace process" in the 1990s. Since the Geneva accord emerged from the same Israeli school that produced the Oslo process, Beilin and his associates could have increased the political viability of their new Geneva process had they publicly admitted their failures throughout the 1990s. They did not, once again neglecting to offer the Israeli public an alternative explanation for the intifada to the standard line that the Palestinians "chose violence."

In 1993, rather than trying to convince Israelis that a new era based on peaceful coexistence and equality was about to start, the leaders of the Labor-Meretz coalition based their marketing strategy solely on security, separation from the Palestinians and the continuity of Israel's colonial supremacy. The Labor-Meretz leadership was unwilling to assume any Israeli or pre-state Zionist responsibility for over 100 years of conflict. Instead, this leadership consciously linked the conflict, both politically and rhetorically, to Palestinian "terrorism" and permanent historical rejectionism.

By listening attentively to the prominent Israelis linked to the Geneva process—particularly when they speak Hebrew—it is readily apparent that they have not forgotten, or learned from, their self-made Oslo failure. In fact, identical behavior and marketing strategies vis-à-vis Israeli public opinion are sewn into the fabric of the Geneva initiative.

"Realism" and "Generosity"

The text of the Geneva accord has little meaning outside the political and journalistic context within which it is being marketed to the Israeli public. In essence, the true substance of the process is embedded in the verbal and written exegesis that surrounds the text of the agreement. These explanatory contexts already allude to the political fiasco that appears to await the text in the near future.

An article published in the Guardian by one of the senior Israeli participants in the Geneva process, the internationally acclaimed novelist and commentator Amos Oz, illustrates this claim. Oz's article, headlined "We Have Done the Gruntwork of Peace," was based upon a Hebrew article he published in Israel. Oz explains that the Geneva talks differ from previous Israeli-Palestinian interactions. For example, there is no longer a discussion of "the right of refugee return," but instead of "a solution to the refugee issue." There is no longer a discussion of "return to the 1967 borders," but of "a logical map that also takes the present into account, and not just history." Innocent readers may conclude that logic is the mental property of left Zionists alone and that the Israelis, unlike the Palestinians, never based any of their national claims on history. Oz's governing message is this: in the Geneva accord, the Palestinians have finally chosen to be "realistic," and to renounce not only the right of return, but also the demand for a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

A leading guru of the Israeli Peace Now movement, Oz makes an extra effort to reiterate that Palestinian stubbornness led to the failures of Oslo and the July 2000 Camp David summit. Oz suggests that the Israeli peace camp finally succeeded in convincing the irrational Palestinians that they must accept the red lines of the Israeli left. These red lines, according to one of Oz's colleagues, represent a huge sacrifice on his part since he is "ready to relinquish no less than a part of my religious faith, inasmuch as I am prepared to agree, with a broken heart, to Palestinian sovereignty on the Temple Mount." Further on, Oz resorts to similar propagandistic symbolism, declaring that "we surrender sovereignty in parts of the Land of Israel where our hearts lie." What, then, are the chief problems of Oz, and the Israeli Geneva school that he so aptly represents, so far as Israeli public opinion is concerned?

Lacking the capacity for self-criticism, Oz reinforces Israel's self-righteousness and confiscates from the Palestinians the position of the victim by representing himself and Israel as the true victims. He makes no attempt to comprehend the gigantic sacrifices made by his Palestinian counterparts. His prose mirrors the assumptions that underlay Barak's "generous" offer to PA leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000.

In order to convince Israeli public opinion, the Israelis of the Geneva process have to show—or so they believe—that the Israelis have "won" and that the Palestinians have "given up." The greatest defect of the Geneva accord is that the basic notion of the inalienable human and political rights of the Palestinian people is entirely ignored by Oz and his associates, as was the case in the Oslo process. Following Barak, Oz replaces the notion of rights with the notion of charity—"if we would have offered them in 1967 what we offer them today…" When no place for rights exists, and the balance of forces so blatantly favors the illegal occupier, the standard Israeli narrative reads like this: the Palestinians gave up their destructive objective (since for Oz and the Geneva school "'return' is a code word for the destruction of Israel"), so we, the Israeli peace camp, decided to be extremely generous.

Systematic Counterproductivity

Apart from its moral valences, the contextual "marketing" argumentation of the Israeli participants in Geneva is politically counterproductive for the goal of engendering a change in Israeli public opinion. If political and human rights do not exist and if the conflict results from an irrational Palestinian determination to eradicate Jews, what Israeli is going to believe that Palestinians may change? Furthermore, if Palestinians change only because the Israeli peace camp were tough enough in dealing with them, than why not be even tougher and force them to accept Israeli domination with no concession whatsoever?

Even political alchemists of the Geneva school's caliber cannot build trust based on a lie: in order to harness Israeli public opinion, some of the Geneva participants argue that, this time, the Palestinians have given up their right of return. A simple reading of Article 7 of the accord reveals that the Palestinian participants in the Geneva process are indeed ready to make remarkably far-reaching compromises on the rights of Palestinian refugees. However, they certainly have not gone so far as to relinquish the "right of return," as established by UN Resolution 194 passed in 1948, as such a move would ruin completely and instantaneously their legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

Those who are interested in a lasting peace -- one that is as just as possible—between Israelis and Palestinians must therefore pose one question: why does the Geneva school try to buy Israel public opinion by marketing the complete opposite of what their Palestinian counterparts say to their own public opinion precisely in order to harness its support for the joint initiative? The end result of the Geneva process is guaranteed to split the difference between the Israeli and Palestinian readings, setting the stage yet again for the Israeli accusation, most likely echoed by doyens of the Geneva school themselves, that the Palestinians are liars.

Some of the more cynical Israeli participants in the Geneva process know perfectly well that there is a volatile contradiction between the Palestinian reading of the agreement and the way that they market it to the Israeli public. These Israelis seem to believe that a misrepresentation of the Palestinian position can assist them in inducing Israelis to bring the Labor Party back to power, where it will find ways to enforce the "agreement."

But Labor will not succeed in regaining power, because its politics are a pale replica of the right-wing parties' beliefs. The resignation of Labor's last candidate for prime minister, Amram Mitzna, as party chairman, coupled with the resignations of left Laborites such as Beilin and Yael Dayan to form a new social-democratic party, testify to the impossibility of serious reform of the party. In the socio-economic domain, the Labor party holds neo-liberal positions similar to those of Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu. On the Israeli-Arab conflict, Labor parliamentarians like Generals Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Efraim Sneh and Dany Yatom are probably worse than some of the Likud MKs. The question for the average Israeli voter remains unchanged: why vote for a (Labor) copy when you can vote for the (Likud) original?

What Should Be Done?

If they are truly interested in a viable and sustainable peace for their people, Israeli politicians will ultimately need to present a peace accord that can earn the backing of non-elite Palestinians. To this end, Israeli public opinion will have to develop a much more sober understanding of the socio-political dynamics underlying the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather than focusing on this or that textual clause of the Geneva Accord, Israelis interested in reaching a just and lasting peace must immediately focus on the candid verbal and written explanations that are necessary in order to contextualize these understandings productively.

First, critical Israelis must tell the Israeli public is that the conflict is not the result of Palestinian terrorism or fanaticism, but rather the result of Israeli dispossession and occupation; Israel's responsibility in the conflict must be unmasked by Israelis. Basic Palestinian human and political rights that are denied by Israeli policies of occupation and colonization must be addressed in any agreement intended to reach a just peace. It must be made clear to the Israeli public that the only "generous offer" within the Israeli-Palestinian arena is the readiness by some Palestinians to renounce 78 percent of their claims to their historical homeland.

The right of return is a basic human right. The readiness of some Palestinians to consider it the object of negotiation, while taking into consideration the demographic worries of Israel, must be understood as another generous Palestinian offer. Critical Israelis must ask their fellow Israelis—the Geneva school included—how can they demand from the Palestinians to renounce their right of return before Israel has recognized its mere existence?

What is needed further from critical Israelis—and ultimately from Israeli politicians—is to consistently promote a positive notion of peace based on coexistence and human equality. The notion of peace that must be adamantly rejected, not only because of its moral bankruptcy, but because it stands no chance of working, is the notion of Oz and his Geneva associates, who understand "peace" as a means of keeping the Palestinians out of sight on the other side of a wall, and consider Palestinians to be an existential danger.

As was the case with the 1993 Oslo agreement, in the Geneva Accords the context is far more important than the text, all the more so when Israeli public opinion is concerned.

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