The authors of the Geneva peace initiative are trying to revive their advocacy campaign just as the Bush administration is endorsing Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan.
The group, an ad hoc coalition of Israeli and Palestinian politicians, academics and retired military and security officials, is opening an office in New York that will coordinate efforts to influence American political decision-makers, Jewish groups and public opinion.
“We want to increase our exposure to the media, think tanks, Congress and the American Jewish community,” said Gadi Baltiansky, the director of Education for Peace, an Israeli non-profit that coordinates Geneva outreach efforts to Israelis.
The American effort comes just as the Bush administration seems to have thrown its weight behind Sharon’s vision of taking unilateral steps in the absence of a credible negotiating partner. The Bush-Sharon plan appears to contrast sharply with the Geneva initiative’s premises of a two-state solution negotiated by both parties and based on the 1967 borders.
“It is especially important for us to get our message across, now that the Bush administration has made a critical policy shift by backing the Sharon plan,” said Marwan Jilani, the initiative’s executive director in the Palestinian territories. “The question now is how to translate our initiative into concrete positions that will influence the administration and the general public.”
The initiative’s current push appears aimed in part at recapturing momentum lost in the past half-year since the Geneva initiative was first launched, garnering worldwide attention. At the time of the December launch the initiative’s leaders were received by Secretary of State Powell, and President Bush saluted it as a positive step. But the administration has since transferred its affections to the Sharon plan.
Yossi Beilin, the main architect of the initiative, claims he never expected a formal endorsement from the administration. Suggesting that the gap between his stance and the administration’s is not as wide as commonly perceived, he questions the widespread assumption that Sharon and Bush see eye-to-eye. “I believe President Bush thinks neither Sharon or Arafat can bring a deal,” he told the Forward.
Beilin stressed that the Geneva team continued to have regular contacts with the State Department’s two top Middle East policy officials, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and his deputy David Satterfield.
At the same time, Beilin and his colleagues emphasize the influence, even if a contrarian one, that the Geneva initiative has had on Israeli policy, noting that Sharon himself admitted he was presenting his own plan in order to prevent the kind of outcome envisioned by the Geneva understandings.
The Geneva team has also been meeting with members of Congress, as well as former President Clinton and his former national security adviser Sandy Berger.
In addition, they have had contacts with the John Kerry campaign through Alan Solomont, a top Kerry fundraiser who attended the signing of the initiative in Switzerland last December. In a sign of the political sensitivities surrounding Middle East issues, Kerry initially endorsed the initiative but has since lined up with Bush to applaud the Sharon plan.
So have most Jewish groups, though Beilin claims a majority of American Jews support the initiative. “The right-wing stance of the Jewish leadership is a problem,” he nonetheless acknowledged, noting that even centrist groups such as the Anti-Defamation League have criticized the initiative.
Asked whether the communal leadership was merely following a traditional policy of supporting the Israeli government, Beilin agreed, but said this was “more true” when a Likud government was in power than with a Labor one.
In an indication of the transatlantic divide over the Middle East, the initiative has been widely praised in Europe, where members of the Geneva team have been meeting with top officials over the past few months — even attending a Swedish cabinet meeting.
But while the German parliament unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the initiative, a similar effort in the U.S. Congress — introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein of California and in the House by California Democrat Lois Capps and New York Republican Amos Houghton — has garnered little support.
Despite their international efforts, the Geneva advocates insist their priority is to reach the home audiences in the Middle East.
In Israel, Education for Peace has been organizing town hall meetings, seminars and school visits around the country, as well as advertising in the media. Baltiansky, the director, said the events have drawn significant crowds, pointing to the initiative’s high name recognition and to polls still showing a sizable support for it.
The initiative’s approval ratings have slipped from 40% last fall to the low 30s in recent months.
Still, Palestinian Geneva advocates are facing a much more daunting task, given what they describe as widespread anger and desperation in Gaza and the West Bank.
“The Palestinian mood is one of despair,” said Jilani, formerly an independent member of the Palestinian legislative council. “It is feeding extremism and it is putting pragmatists like us on the defensive.”
As the initiative’s momentum has slowed, internal debates have opened among its advocates.
One of the issues is the initiative’s growing politicization. Its two most prominent members are clearly identified with political movements. Beilin is head of the newly formed Yahad party, and has included the initiative in his party’s program. His Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed Rabbo, is a longtime Fatah leader who served until recently as Palestinian minister of culture and information.
Giora Inbar, a former Israeli general who helped draft the Geneva document, told the Forward in a recent interview that the initiative’s leaders should be trying to remain above the fray and give more prominence to the former senior Israeli security officials in order to attract mainstream support. Among the security officials involved in the Geneva effort in addition to Inbar are former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, retired general Shlomo Brom and retired colonel Shaul Arieli.
“I want to bring Geneva from politics to the civil society,” said Inbar, who commanded the Israeli troops in Lebanon before their withdrawal in May 2000. “I love the fact that the initiative is called ‘Geneva’ rather than ‘Beilin-Abed Rabbo’ because it would then be painted as a left-wing move, and we need to speak to the center.”
Beilin, questioned on Inbar’s assertions, countered that “Geneva is politics” and that all the decisions regarding the initiative were made by a steering committee that met regularly.
“We did not do this in a partisan way, but many of us are former negotiators and maybe future ones,” he said.
Baltiansky, who served as chief spokesman for the former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak, acknowledged that the initiative might be hampered by the fact that it was seen as “Beilin’s baby” and that he was a polarizing figure in Israel.
“But,” he said, “I really hope that people judge the message rather than the messenger.”