Why We Israelis and Palestinians Took Peace Into Our Own Hands

By Yossi Beilin

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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When the Geneva Understandings were made public in Jordan three weeks ago, people asked me how I could dare to conduct a private negotiation with a Palestinian leader to reach a draft peace accord without the authorization of my government.

Given the current state of affairs in my country and my region, how could I not?

The optimistic moments of President Bush’s visit to the Middle East — the Sharm El Sheikh summit with moderate Arab countries, the Aqaba summit with King Abdullah of Jordan, Prime Minister Sharon and then-Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas — now seem nothing more than fragments of a far-off dream. Bush, who promised close monitoring of implementation of the “road map,” who announced that he would send to the region Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, has given up on his intentions.

Most of the world’s nations are steering clear of this region: Anyone who has not met with Yasser Arafat can’t meet other Palestinian leaders, and anyone who has met with Yasser Arafat can’t meet with Israel, officially. This absolute, political wilderness is being filled with anti-Israel resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly and similar resolutions by the international body’s Security Council — which are vetoed at the last minute by the United States.

The political commentators have long since reached the conclusion that the United States will not have anything to do with the Middle East until after November 2004. And then what? Perhaps Bush will do something here, during his second term in office? Perhaps a Democratic president will do something here, during his first term in office? And until then? We will remain stuck in this horrific mud of ours, more blood will be shed, the economy will deteriorate further and we will become even more isolated. Even now, the State Department’s travel advisory recommends that Americans not visit Israel.

If we, the Israelis and the Palestinians, do not try — ourselves — to save ourselves, then no one else is going to do it for us. It simply cannot be that there are not enough sane people, on both sides, who want to save their lives and put an end to this never-ending, horrendous cycle of violence in which we are trapped. This is why those of us behind the Geneva Understandings decided to get up and do something.

When the last official talks between Israel and the Palestinians ended in January 2001 in Taba, both myself and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister of information and culture, found ourselves left with the feeling that if only we had been given a few more weeks it would have been possible to reach an agreement. This was the minority opinion.

Our Israeli and Palestinian colleagues, members of the delegations who had been conducting the negotiations at Taba, felt that the gaps were too large to be bridged. After the elections of 2001, in which Ehud Barak was defeated by Ariel Sharon, I proposed to Abed Rabbo that we attempt to complete the work at Taba — this time, however, as private citizens, and not in an official capacity. We aimed to bridge the gaps and to prove to the two parties that, despite the frustration and the disappointment, there is someone to talk to, and there is something to talk about. The process took far longer than anticipated.

The path was ridden with obstacles: during this period, Israelis were forbidden from entering the areas of the Palestinian Authority; the Palestinians found it far from simple to obtain permission to enter Israel, and it was also very difficult for them to get permission to travel abroad. The project became more expensive than we had imagined, had become more complicated than we had anticipated and was taking much longer than we had thought. Sometimes we would meet at checkpoints, where we sat in a car, in order to go over texts. Other times, we would meet abroad. Some of the talks were held by video conference.

We built broad coalitions which penetrated the heart of Israeli and Palestinian society. On our side were people who identified with the Likud, Shinui, Labor and Meretz parties; senior, retired security establishment personnel; economists, and intellectuals. On their side were key Fatah officials, economists and intellectuals. After two and a half years had passed, we were able to place on the table an agreement comprising some 50 pages and detailed maps, before both governments, for the purpose of public debate. In spite of everything, our efforts proved, there is someone to talk to, and there is something to talk about.

The solution is extremely detailed, and Palestinians and Israelis have never before committed to such a solution. But at the heart of the solution lies the exchange of two virtual rights: Although Israel unilaterally declared its sovereignty over the Temple Mount, it has never actually exercised this right. The Temple Mount is managed by the Muslim Waqf, and when the Waqf decides that Jews will not visit the Temple Mount, then, indeed, Jews do not visit there. Since 1948, the Palestinians have been brandishing the claim that they have the right of return to Israel, however, in reality, they understand that if every Palestinian refugee were to return to Israel, then Israel would lose its Jewish majority, and no Israeli government would be able to agree to such a thing.

We exposed the reality: the Palestinians will be able to exercise formal sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and a constant international presence will be set up there, which will help to settle disputes; and Israel will have the sovereignty to absorb a token number of refugees that will reflect the average number of refugees absorbed in other countries.

The agreement is only a model. The decision-makers can make use of this agreement, they can change it or they can cast it aside. We have done the maximum that citizens can do when they believe that the solution is just round the next corner and that the current situation is totally unbearable.

Now it’s up to our leaders.

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