U.S. Peace Coalition Rejects Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian Pact

By Eric Marx

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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One of the country’s largest anti-war coalitions has voted against endorsing an informal diplomatic effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a move that perplexed some Jewish groups in the coalition.

The November 16 vote by the Palestine Working Group of United for Peace and Justice reflected the belief among some members of the coalition that the Geneva Understandings fail to serve Palestinian interests. That position angered some Jewish groups, which see the initiative as perhaps the last, best chance for ending the conflict.

“If this one fails, it will be 10 to 30 years before another emerges,” wrote Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center and a member of the working group, in a post on United for Peace and Justice’s Internet message board. “Which of us on this list is willing to take responsibility for not trying hard to help bring about a settlement that the two societies actually yearn for — but need help to achieve?”

United for Peace and Justice represents some 650 member groups, including the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, and the left-leaning Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel.

The Geneva Understandings, which have not been accepted by the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority, were drawn up in talks between former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. The Geneva document was first released last month.

The talks, bankrolled largely by the Swiss government, resulted in a detailed document that the authors describe as a model for a future peace treaty. It calls for a Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank and Gaza, with borders largely following the pre-1967 armistice line. Israel would keep some settlements near the current border, ceding an equal amount of land in Israel to the projected Palestinian state. It gives Palestinians sovereignty over the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, while Israel would control the Western Wall.

Under the Geneva Understandings, Palestinian refugees would be resettled in the new state or in the countries where they now live, with only small numbers admitted to Israel — a sticking point for some pro-Palestinian groups. On United for Peace and Justice’s Internet message board, some activists criticized the initiative for making no mention of international law or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“It’s scandalous that this document recognizes Israel as a state not of its citizens but of Jewish people everywhere,” wrote Mazim Qumsiyeh, an activist with Al-Awda, an American-based group that pushes for recognition of the “right of return.” “It puts 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel at high risk of even increased discrimination.”

Burton Steck, an activist with Not in My Name, a Jewish, Chicago-based pro-Palestinian group, wrote, “My reading is that Geneva calls for establishing of a non-sovereign subservient Palestinian state, essentially vassal to Israel and the United States.”

A recent poll taken by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University indicates broad support for the initiative among Israelis and Palestinians.

“There are groups on both sides that don’t want to move this forward and for one reason or another are comfortable in the luxury of their distance from the problem,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. “The issue here is not the details. It’s the concept that negotiations are possible.”

Many Palestinian activists demur. For the Palestinian diaspora community, a settlement not predicated on full right of return and recognition of human rights violations is a betrayal, said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force for Palestine.

“They have a sense that they would have lost something concrete and definable and that’s a loss of connection to their homes, and this is at the core of the difference between Palestinians in the diaspora who are still politically involved and the people who stayed in Palestine,” Asali said.

Tamara Cofman-Wittes, a Middle East specialist at the congressionally-funded U.S. Institute of Peace, said Palestinians living in the diaspora, like other diaspora groups, are bound to be more hard-line than those living in historical Palestine.

“It’s true of the Armenians and the Boston Irish,” she said. “Because they don’t live there, it’s easier to stand on principle. Because they live in the West, they tend to assimilate and hold onto the conflict as a way of holding onto their identity.”

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