What a real Middle East peace could look like

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 08-Dec-03 | Author: Yossi Beilin| Source: International Herald Tribune

and Yasser Abed Rabbo NYT

Geneva Accord

GENEVA - Civic leaders from across the Israeli and Palestinian political spectrum gathered here to publicize what has become known as the Geneva Accord - a negotiated but unofficial framework for reaching a permanent peace between our two peoples after years of bloodshed and lost and shattered lives.

The accord lays out, for the first time, what a credible and negotiable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement could look like. In the process, it addresses all the major differences between the parties, including the shape of permanent borders, the status of Jerusalem, the future of West Bank settlements, the rights of refugees and access to holy places.

The initiative dates to January 2001, when the last official talks between Israel and the Palestinians ended at Taba. As participants in the negotiations, we both were left with the feeling that we could have reached an agreement had we been given a few more weeks.

Unfortunately, our Israeli and Palestinian colleagues in the negotiations felt that the gaps were too large to be bridged. After the Israeli elections of 2001, when Ehud Barak lost to Ariel Sharon, the two of us agreed to try to complete the work begun at Taba - as private citizens. We wanted to find common ground and demonstrate to both Israelis and Palestinians that despite all the frustration and disappointment we could keep meaningful discussions going.

Our path was filled with obstacles. During this period, Israelis were forbidden from entering territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority; Palestinians, meanwhile, found it difficult to obtain permission to enter Israel and to travel abroad. Thus, sometimes we would meet at checkpoints, where we negotiated in a car. On other occasions, the Swiss government made it possible for us to meet abroad.

To support our effort, we built broad coalitions. On the Israeli side were people who identified with the Likud, Shinui, Labor and Meretz parties as well as retired senior officials, economists and intellectuals. On the Palestinian side were officials from Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction and leading academics.

Finally, in October, we were able to put on the table a 50-page agreement, including detailed maps. The document is complicated and thus difficult to summarize, but its central idea is that in exchange for peace with Israel, the Palestinians would at last gain a nonmilitarized state.

The Palestinians would also get sovereignty over the Temple Mount, though Jewish access to the holy spot would be guaranteed by an international security force. In addition, Israel would keep some West Bank settlements, including many of the new Jewish communities constructed on the Arab side of Jerusalem.

We know that our accord is not universally popular in the Middle East. Indeed, opposition to the agreement began to mount even before our joint document was made public. Hard-liners in Israel have criticized the details of the agreement as well as the private, diplomatic process we used for reaching it. In the West Bank and Gaza, meanwhile, rejectionists in Hamas and Islamic Jihad have held angry rallies attacking the initiative and those who shaped it.

Yet, in spite of this opposition, we are pleased that the accord seems to be having a positive impact on the negotiating environment. Copies of our document have been sent to every Israeli household and published in the major Palestinian newspapers.

More significant, a recent survey conducted by the James A. Baker 3rd Institute for Public Policy, based at Rice University in Houston, and the International Crisis Group in Washington found that more than 50 percent of Palestinians and Israelis support the fundamental principles in the document.

It is important that this interest also be felt strongly in the international community. We are pleased that Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, have voiced their support for the initiative.

It is even more important, in our view, that the Bush administration and Congress support our efforts and re-engage in the peace process. Secretary of State Colin Powell's praise for the accord was gratifying, but more American voices are needed to ensure that progress continues.

In the end, however, the Geneva Accord is only a "virtual" agreement. The decision-makers - in the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, in Washington and elsewhere - can use it, modify it or ignore it. As private citizens, we have done about as much as anybody can do in a situation that has become totally unbearable.

Now it is up to our leaders.

Yossi Beilin is a former Israeli justice minister. Yasser Abed Rabbo is a former minister of information in the Palestinian Authority.