JERUSALEM — An unofficial but comprehensive peace agreement, hammered out by groups of informal Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, is fueling Israel’s fiercest political debate in years and could ultimately redraw the political map here.
Supporters of the so-called Geneva Understandings, which were initialed at a ceremony in Jordan this week, say the 60-page document could serve as the basis of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. Its completion follows two years of talks between an Israeli team led by onetime justice minister Yossi Beilin and a Palestinian team led by former information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, a confidante of Yasser Arafat. Supporters say it is meant to dispel the widely held view that Israel has no partner for peace on the Palestinian side.
Prime Minister Sharon and his allies are responding furiously to the document, accusing the Israeli negotiators of damaging Israel’s interests and helping the enemy in wartime. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a close Sharon adviser, charged that the negotiators “knowingly want to act as levers in the hands of foreign powers in order to put pressure on Israel.”
Olmert called the project “pathetic” and “grave,” noting that several negotiators were Knesset members who should not be “negotiating with a foreign entity.”
Sharon himself was quoted as calling the document “the greatest historical mistake since Oslo.”
Supporters point to the vehemence of the government reaction as evidence of the document’s effectiveness. Beilin said Sharon was “doing nothing to advance peace, and that is why he is reacting so strongly to our agreement.”
The document lays out a detailed peace agreement that includes a precise border between Israel and a Palestinian state, a division of Jerusalem into two capitals, control of holy places and a complex plan for Palestinian refugees (see related story, Page 19). Palestinians would agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and to end their conflict with it. The negotiations were financed largely by the Swiss government, with some aid from Japan. A signing ceremony is scheduled to take place in Geneva on November 4, the eighth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
The Israeli negotiators, in addition to Beilin, include several top figures in the Labor and Meretz parties as well as several ranking ex-generals, led by former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Palestinian negotiators include three former Palestinian Authority Cabinet ministers and several top figures in the Tanzim organization, which is led by the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.
On the domestic front, the agreement appears to have galvanized the Israeli left out of its three-year-old lethargy while also threatening to open deep rifts in both the Labor Party and Shinui, which is a member of Sharon’s governing coalition. The leader of Shinui, Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, publicly called the agreement an “aberration concocted by has-been politicians,” but several of his party’s Knesset members have expressed outright support for Beilin’s gambit.
Within Labor, some top party leaders have joined Beilin in sponsoring the new agreement, including former party chairman Amram Mitzna and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg. However, former prime minister Ehud Barak has fiercely attacked the document, calling it “delusional” and accusing the negotiators of “aiding and abetting” Arafat.
The public impact of the agreement is magnified by the alarm among Israelis over the deterioration of relations on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as a perceived meltdown of the P.A.’s governing structure. Israel is in the midst of a massive offensive in the southern Gaza Strip, while the new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, is threatening to resign because of disagreements with Arafat over the assignment of security authority. A senior Defense Ministry official told the Forward that contacts between the two sides are “totally nonexistent.”
The agreement’s most groundbreaking achievement, in the view of its Israeli negotiators, is the detailed settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. The document stipulates that refugees would be absorbed in the new Palestinian state, settled in their current countries of residence or relocated to a variety of third countries. Israel would be urged to accept a number of refugees, but only in numbers set by Israel itself. Whether or not the document constitutes a Palestinian waiver of the so-called right of return is a matter of hot dispute. Israeli negotiators, led by Beilin, insist it is tantamount to a waiver, since Palestinians agree to a plan in which refugees do not return to Israel. Palestinian negotiators, led by former minister Hisham Abdel Razek, say the right of return is not affected.
In fact, the sensitivity of the “return” issue appears to be fueling opposition to the new agreement from Palestinian hard-liners, with Hamas in the lead in denouncing the “treasonous” negotiations. Farouk Kaddoumi, a Palestine Liberation Organization official who never accepted the Oslo accords and has never settled in the territories, declared at a conference in Malaysia that the agreement had no official status. Arafat himself has refused to commit himself, insisting he did not want to “undercut any attempt to reach the peace of the brave.”
The sponsors of the agreement are now launching a campaign to broaden international support and to raise funds to promote the agreement to the Israeli and Palestinian publics. In the Arab world, both Egypt and Jordan have expressed support for the agreement, and Abed Rabbo is seeking to convince the Saudis as well to jump on the bandwagon. The sponsors are also hoping that a representation of the so-called Madrid Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — will agree to participate in the November 4 Geneva ceremony.
Sharon and his advisers are worried that the agreement will, in the short run, help to resuscitate Arafat’s standing in the international community and further complicate Israel’s wish to render him “irrelevant,” if not to expel him altogether. In the long term, Sharon’s advisers say, the concessions made by Beilin and his colleagues will only hamper Israel’s position in any future peace negotiations, with the Palestinians clinging to the “Geneva Understandings” as a launching pad for further Israeli concessions.
Beilin and his supporters counter that the Palestinians have taken “irrevocable steps” — from which they cannot retreat — by relinquishing the right of return and agreeing to a “permanently demilitarized” Palestinian state.
The full political impact of the agreement will only become clear over the course of the coming weeks. Its most dramatic effects are likely to be felt in the center and left. Beilin in particular seems positioned now as the leading candidate to take over the leadership of the left-wing Meretz party from Yossi Sarid, who resigned last winter in the wake of the party’s poor showing in the last elections. Beilin’s goal in the longer term is to split the Labor Party between its dovish and centrist wings and to form a so-called Social Democratic Party that would include moderate Laborites such as Mitzna, Burg and, potentially, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres himself, who refrained this week from outright rejecting his former protégé’s achievement.
The initial reaction to the agreement inside Labor indicates that it indeed has the potential to divide the party irreparably. That would represent a kind of “sweet revenge” for Beilin, who left Labor after failing to win a slot on its Knesset slate in the last elections.
On the other hand, the furious reaction of Sharon and his colleagues to the agreement, and the subsequent re-emergence of the left-right schism in Israeli politics, may bring about a shift to the right inside the Likud itself. That could result in a hardening of the government’s current opposition to any contacts with Palestinians connected to Arafat. Further terrorist attacks by Palestinian groups would likely inflame public discourse, potentially returning Israel to the volatile period of internal strife that erupted after the signing of the original Oslo accords.
Beilin and his supporters are hoping for a clear endorsement of the accord by Arafat himself, in order to present the public with what they describe as “the only alternative” to Sharon’s continued procrastination. Beilin’s dream is to see the agreement serve as the basis for a “national referendum” in the next elections. The emotional first response to his moves indicates that his wish may indeed come true.