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A Glimmer of Hope
Last uploaded : Saturday 6th Dec 2003 at 22:10
Contributed by : Paul Usiskin


Yesh T?Guva*

Yitzhak Shamir, former Likud Prime Minister, often said referring to past Arab threats to throw Israel into the sea ?The Arabs are the same Arabs and the sea is the same sea.? He never intended to make peace with the Palestinian Arabs or to relinquish Israel?s corrosive hold on the occupied territories. After three bloody years of conflict the Palestinians are the same Palestinians, and the Israelis are the same Israelis. They both want peace, and they both want to live on the same land and, to quote the late Abba Eban ?they are two peoples with two histories and two patrimonies, and neither of them are going to go away.?

The Geneva Initiative, whose commitment ceremony took place on Monday 1st December in Geneva, provided proof, sorely needed, that there is hope that these two peoples can talk with each other, negotiate with each other, and reach an agreement, which provides a framework for a viable future. Two men, whose efforts and support represent the great need for commitment by outsiders to facilitate a resolution of this conflict, stand out after the Geneva ceremony. One hardly needs introduction- Jimmy Carter, former US President and Nobel Peace prize winner whose example at Camp David for the deal between Egypt and Israel has sadly not been repeated. He and his representative have been the unlikely American backroom boys for the Geneva Initiative. Professor Alexis Keller deserves to be known. A Professor of Law at Berne University, Keller represents in his genuineness and sincerity the people of good will without whom no end of conflict will ever be achieved. He bears responsibility for convincing the Swiss Foreign Minister to support the Initiative and in so doing has cast the Swiss people in the same role and became an essential part of the Swiss team.

If all the effort of the last three or so years undertaken by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabo and their teams produced nothing more than hope, then it all was worth it. In fact, it produced a great deal more. Like it or not, and there are many who don?t like it at all, when official representatives of both peoples finally sit down to negotiate a final status agreement, the benchmark for it will be the Geneva Initiative.

The document produced is flawed. After all, it is the product of human beings and they are imperfect. Perversity suggests that if neither side is totally happy with an agreement then it must be good. As an observer to the secret session of the talks outside London in February, and at the slightly less secret talks at the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort Hotel in Jordan in October, I saw the painful concessions that Ariel Sharon has promised but not made, for the first time. And with them came the sharp differences that must inevitably exist between two peoples who have enacted the roles of occupier and occupied for far too long.

When talking with Palestinians I used the word ?concessions? to describe what the Israelis had been doing at both sets of talks, they were infuriated. For them all that the Israeli team had been doing was returning to them what they felt had been taken from them. But I did not have the impression that the former chief of staff of the IDF, the former deputy head of the IAF, the former head of the National Security Council, the former commander of the IDF in Lebanon and the former head of the Management Centre for Negotiations under Ehud Barak were acting in arrogance when involved in these talks. That too might be a human failing. These are after all men who have spent the majority of their lives in uniform serving their country. How else could they imagine what it was they were embarking upon other than concessions? In what other way could a former chief of staff regard Palestinian prisoners, some 1,200 or so of whom were incarcerated for capital crimes, as other than murderers. For Amnon Lipkin Shahak these were men with Israeli blood on their hands who could not be released on signing a final status agreement.

For Hisham Abdel Razek, Minister for Prisoner Affairs, these men were prisoners of war and in the eyes of many Palestinians, heroes of that war. Lipkin Shahak insisted that their only release would come still in prison at the end of their lives when they died. The prisoner-release issue became a deal-breaker in the UK talks.

Right of Return of Palestinian refugees was another, and when, in Jordan, the Palestinians sought to revisit what had subsequently been agreed - a formula based largely on the Clinton plan which stipulated Right of Return to the Palestinian homeland and which Geneva sought to link as a quid pro quo for sovereignty over the Temple Mount - Avrum Burg, former Knesset Speaker, banged the table and insisted on taking back sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

There were many other examples of exasperation and frustration, especially in Jordan, and particularly over the maps and the shape of territory and borders. The Palestinians saw their greatest concession not being recognised or understood - giving up what they viewed as 78% of historic Palestine for the West Bank with the pre-1967 border as a demarcation line between the State of Israel and the new state of Palestine. They wanted to see territorial contiguity with no Israeli encroachments into their territory, and certainly no settlement blocs or individual settlements floating in various places on their soil.

For the Israelis that meant agreeing to the evacuation of Ariel and Efrat, two substantial towns in the north and south of the West Bank. And to say that the Israeli team, dominated by former generals, found these proposals difficult, is an understatement.

If the talks that I witnessed were ?virtual? then I have to say that they mimicked reality remarkably well. In Jordan particularly, there was no sign that this was an exercise and that the participants could call for a time-out and emerge into the real world whenever they chose. The men and women involved were not such convincing actors. And yes, there were the remarkable scenes that three years of almost uninterrupted horror generated when adversaries met to talk.

The preface was boarding a bus which contained the writer Amos Oz, the former Labour Party leader and Mayor of Haifa Amram Mitzna, former Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg and Professor Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University and almost all the generals. Seeing them hours later meeting with, eating with, laughing with and arguing with their Palestinian partners, initially did feel like a scene from a fact-mixed-with-fiction drama.

Beilin and Abed Rabo aside, the two men who left the most profound and abiding impression from the outset were Daniel Levy and Ghaith al-Omari. These are two young document drafters, advisors to their respective teams, friends, and as professionals, cool and careful about language. Where Ghaith represented the lawyer?s quiet sober assessment of people and their words, Daniel was a dynamo, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, but implacable in reaching the goal he and Ghaith had set for themselves - drafting a detailed document that avoided the interim steps which were the flaws of Oslo and which would present to both peoples a map of the future.

In Geneva, there was an atmosphere of optimism tinged with uncertainty. Internal Fatah rivalries almost stopped some of the Palestinians from reaching Geneva.In Israel 250 rabbids had issued what amounted to a fatwa on the Israelis involved in Geneva. Yassir Arafat despatched his most senior security advisor Jibril Rajoub to Geneva as a symbol of support. For similar reasons to Ariel Sharon, he hasn?t issued a statement officially endorsing the Initiative, though Prime Minister Abu Ala gave it his personal support in November.

Yasser Abed Rabo said in the last speech at Geneva ?we have imagined peace in detail.? It is a simple and unsurprising statement, but the product - the 44 page Geneva Initiative document - is precisely that, peace in detail. The glimmer of hope that all of this creates cannot and must not be allowed to dwindle. For that would mean that the efforts of the men and women of good will who have supported the Initiative would have been in vain. It would also mean consigning the peoples of Israel and Palestine to generations of bloodshed.

Hatikva - Israel?s national anthem - contains the words Od Loh Avda Tikvatenu - We Have Not Lost Our Hope. The Geneva Initiative has rekindled that hope for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
*Yesh T?Guva is the Hebrew for the opposite of ?no comment?

Details of the Geneva Accords can be found on http://www.peacenow-uk.org

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