They Love Him, They Love Him Not

By Chemi Shalev

Published August 06, 2004, issue of August 06, 2004.
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The Path to Geneva

By Yossi Beilin

RDV Books/Akashic Books, 297 pages, $22.95

Yossi Beilin commented recently on the ongoing turmoil in Gaza, saying that a strong Palestinian Authority was in Israel’s best interest. It was a relatively benign and quite anticipated remark, but nonetheless one that drew a torrent of insults and abuse to the Ma’ariv Web site, where Beilin’s observations were reported.

“Arafat’s best friend on earth,” one comment said.

“Beilin should be prosecuted for killing 1,000 Israelis at Oslo,” another opined.

“Why don’t you take some more money from the Europeans and go live in Ramallah with your friends?” a third pleaded.

Indeed, Beilin leaves hardly an Israeli indifferent, despite the fact that he is arguably the most soft-spoken and mild-mannered of politicians. He is a weak-kneed collaborator with Israel’s worst enemies, according to his detractors; a courageous latter-day prophet, if you listen to his devotees. You either admire him immensely or detest him intensely, and the latter are the overwhelming majority, according to most public-opinion polls.

But love him or loathe him, no one denies that Beilin has exerted enormous influence on modern Israeli history, both when he was in office and, even more so, paradoxically, when he was out in the political cold. He was the spearhead of the call for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon; the mastermind behind the 1993 Oslo Accords; the architect of the first-ever comprehensive blueprint for a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, which he concluded with Palestinian leader Abu Mazen in 1995; and, most recently, the main architect of the unofficial Geneva Accords, signed last October by Beilin and several prominent Israelis and their Palestinian counterparts. In no small measure, it was the conclusion of this agreement that spurred Prime Minister Ariel Sharon into coming up with the disengagement plan from Gaza that now dominates Israeli policy.

In his new book, “The Path to Geneva,” Beilin recounts the troubled history of the past decade, which led him, and the entire country in his footsteps, from Oslo to Geneva. Alas, the talented statesman and indefatigable proponent of peace appears to be more adept at making history than writing about it. For the most part, “The Path to Geneva” is no more than a concise history of Middle East peace-making, in a stilted translation from the Hebrew, based on material that easily could be garnered from newspapers and public archives. Even when he reports on his own private meetings during this period, in both official and unofficial capacities, Beilin is achingly short on human-interest and telling anecdotes, and laboriously long on mundane exchanges that add very little to an overall understanding of developments.

For the uninitiated, the book may offer a competent account of events, but even the most modest of mavens will have to get to the last chapter, titled “On Thin Ice” — on page 266 of the 297 text pages of the book — before encountering Beilin’s first original contribution to the historiography of the past 10 years. It is in this chapter that Beilin lays down a narrative that can serve as a plausible alternative to the one now almost universally accepted by most Israelis and Jews around the world. In Beilin’s version, there are no ultimate villains nor utter heroes, no forces of light battling hosts of darkness — just two antagonists, tragically entangled in a web of suspicion, misunderstanding and, ultimately, violence and bloodshed.

“We have a partner,” Beilin insisted in a recent interview on C-SPAN. Contrary to the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of Israelis, Beilin continues to believe that Yasser Arafat is not an incorrigible terrorist who needs to be removed from the scene in order for progress to be achieved, but rather “a multifaceted leader, who wears many masks, like most other world leaders. He is neither a pacifist at all costs, nor a terrorist at all costs.” More importantly, perhaps, Beilin maintains that Arafat is still surrounded by a group of moderate leaders who seek an equitable solution, like those who signed and supported his Geneva Accords. These Palestinians, Beilin maintains, must be nurtured and fostered rather than rejected, by both Israel and the international community at large.

Beilin’s depiction of the crash of the Oslo process apportions blame to both sides, almost equally. Unlike many of his left-wing colleagues, however, Beilin retains a lingering admiration for former prime minister Ehud Barak and a sympathetic understanding for Barak’s failure at Camp David. Beilin gives Barak high marks for his courage and for his genuine intentions, and one suspects that much of Beilin’s appreciation stems from the fact that contrary to Shimon Peres — Beilin’s mentor in the past and sometimes rival in the present — Barak was the first Israeli leader who was prepared to “go all the way” with the Palestinians, as Beilin prescribes.

In Beilin’s account, it is former and possibly future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who emerges as the arch villain. Beilin believes that Netanyahu purposely ran Oslo aground during his three years in office, despite his public pledges of allegiance to the agreements signed by his predecessors. In a chapter entitled “Killing the Peace, Softly,” Beilin accuses Netanyahu of using the principle of “reciprocity” as an excuse for Israel not to keep its part of the Oslo Accords.

Beilin has no kind words for Ariel Sharon, either. He refrains from pinning the entire blame for the outbreak of the intifada on Sharon’s controversial visit to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000, but poses an intriguing historic analogy: “Would the intifada have broken out without Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount? It may have, or it may not have. Would the First World War have begun without the murder of Archduke Ferdinand? It’s hard to say.”

Beilin, as a champion of negotiated agreements, is also distinctly unimpressed with Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza, saying that without a peace partner, Israel will find itself, willy-nilly, withdrawing to the 1967 border without any ability to influence the character of the Palestinian entity that will emerge in its stead. It is an “emergency solution” at best, says Beilin, who only recently agreed — now as chairman of the Yahad Party and in response to pressure from his own ranks — to refrain from openly opposing Sharon’s plans.

Beilin is highly laudatory of former President Clinton and his peace efforts, while lamenting the fact that the Clinton Peace Plan of December 2000, the inevitable cornerstone for any future peace agreement, was submitted far too late to be effective. On the other hand, Beilin has only modest praise for Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, claiming that she repeatedly failed to seize the initiative at critical junctures throughout the process.

One of Beilin’s failures in the book, and

perhaps in political life, as well, is his refusal to confront the Israeli public’s disenchantment with him and with his policies. Of the Taba talks with the Palestinians, conducted while Israel’s 2001 election campaign already was in full swing, he writes that “in retrospect, the Taba talks damaged the election campaign.” However, there was, in fact, no need for the benefit of hindsight in order to appreciate the distaste with which most Israelis viewed diplomatic talks that were proceeding concurrently with a violent intifada that was exacting significant Israeli casualties. Only single-minded dedication to the cause, such as Beilin’s, could have blinded him to the unpopularity of his actions.

Several years ago, while serving as deputy finance minister, Beilin predicted that Israel would have to get used to a permanent unemployment rate of 7%. The press and the public lambasted him roundly, but today Israel is living with an entrenched unemployment rate of 10%-11% and is more or less coping. Thus, there is circumstantial evidence, at the very least, that Beilin may indeed be a prophet of biblical dimensions — for whatever he says, on whatever topic, the first reaction is usually a public stoning. It takes Israelis at least a decade or two to come to the conclusion that Beilin was right from the outset, so while embracing his ideas they detest him even more.

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