The Beilin Agreement

by URI AVNERY

The Beilin-Abed-Rabbo agreement is the latest hit on the Middle Eastern market.

This week I made a short visit to Germany, where a book of mine has come out, and was asked about it at every event. At my meetings with President Johannes Rau and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, too, the subject came up at once. I used the opportunity to argue for support of this initiative by all possible means.

To avoid misunderstanding, I pointed out that I have no connections with this initiative. The Israeli participants belong to the left wing of the Labor and Meretz parties, and I do not belong to this circle. But I give this initiative all my blessings ­ all the more so because it continues a process that we ourselves started two years ago.

In August 2001, Gush Shalom published the draft of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. It consisted of 14 paragraphs that included detailed proposals for the solution of all the problems of the conflict. It was an Israeli initiative, but we acted in close consultation with Palestinian colleagues.

The main object of the initiative was educational. The al-Aksa Intifada was in full swing, Ehud Barak’s myth ("There is no one to talk with!") had captured the public, most of the peace camp had collapsed, hopelessness and impotence reigned supreme.

We wanted to light a candle in the darkness. To prove to the public that there is a solution, that there was somebody to talk to and something to talk about. And, most importantly, to tell the people what the price of peace is, and that it was worthwhile to pay it.

We saw ourselves as an icebreaker, a compact and autonomous vessel that opens the way for much bigger ships to follow.

We published the draft treaty as a full-page ad in Haaretz (August 10, 2001). It did not cause much of a stir. As usual, all the Israeli media boycotted it and even abroad it attracted only limited attention. But we hoped that we had opened a path, and that others would use it in due course.

The first who did so were Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon, the former the president of an Arab university and the scion of an important Jerusalem family, the latter a former commander of the Israeli navy and a former chief of the Security Service. They presented a small number of basic principles for a peace accord, launched a big publicity campaign and called for mass signatures on both sides. Up to now, some 65,000 Palestinians and 85,000 Israelis have signed.

Now comes the initiative of a group of important Israeli and Palestinian personalities. Like our initiative at the time, it takes the form of a detailed draft peace agreement. In their content, too, the two documents are quite similar. It can be said that 90% of the proposals are the same. And no wonder – after endless plans, endless rounds of negotiations and endless talks, all the problems lie on the table and everyone knows what the parameters of a possible compromise are.

Both drafts are based on the principle of "two states for two peoples", with their capitals in Jerusalem, a border based on the Green Line, removal of the settlers from the Palestinian territories and a practical solution of the refugee problem.

The differences are mainly due to Beilin-Abed-Rabbo’s desire to sweeten the pill for the Israelis as much as possible. For example: we proposed to cure the historical wound with Israel’s acceptance of its responsibility for the creation of at least part of the refugee problem and its recognition of the principle of the Right of Return. We believe that such a declaration is necessary for the cleaning of the wound.

The new initiative deliberately ignores the painful question of principle and deals only with the practical solution. Beilin says that the Palestinians have "given up" the Right of Return de jure, too ­ a statement the Palestinians will it find difficult to swallow.

Like us, the initiators propose in practice to allow a limited number of Palestinians to return to Israel, but they propose a sophisticated key: a number equivalent to the average number of refugees allowed in by other nations. We have proposed a quite simple method: to allow back a fixed quota (say 50 thousand) every year for 10 years.

On the question of Jerusalem, too, the new draft tries to sweeten the pill. They avoid saying clearly that the Palestinians will be "sovereign" over their part of the city and the Temple Mount. All the paragraphs about Jerusalem are a bit clumsy, in an attempt, so it seems, to make them more palatable to the Israeli public.

The document imposes several limitation on Palestinian sovereignty that may impair the feeling of equality. Also, without seeing the detailed maps it is hard to say how much Beilin wants to swap. It seems that there is a certain disparity between their and our maps.

But these differences are not really important. The people who drafted this document knew that they were preparing only a sample agreement. It will be presented to the public in order to show that peace is possible, that it poses no existential danger to Israel that there is a partner on the other side and that there is something to talk about. Even the refugee problem, which frightens so many Israelis out of their wits, stops being so threatening when one tackles it in real terms. It becomes a practical problem with practical solutions.

The reactions of the leaderships of the two sides is illuminating. Ariel Sharon has attacked the document furiously, as if it constituted high treason and sticks a knife into the back of the nation. That’s no wonder, considering that there is no greater danger to Sharon and his grand design than the danger of peace. Ehud Barak, the man most to blame for the collapse of the Israeli peace camp, has also raged against the initiative. The starling visits the raven, as the Hebrew saying goes.

Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, has blessed the initiative. He cannot accept it formally, because a real peace treaty must be negotiated between governments. No national leader can take official responsibility for terms when the leader of the other side does not. But it can safely be said that the agreement is acceptable to him ­ all the more so since he took part in its formulation behind the scenes. There is, of course, no symmetry: the Israeli doves are in opposition, while their Palestinian counterparts are in power.

Throughout the world, the document was well received by all who wish for an end to the conflict. The great hope is that this initiative, like the "revolt of the pilots", represents the end of the era of despair.

The first task of Beilin and his colleagues is to raise the Labor and Meretz parties from their ruins (the Labor party chairman, the birthday darling, has not joined the initiative!) and to set up a strong and combative opposition in the spirit of the document.

To quote Churchill again: This is not the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. One of his essays is also included in The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: avnery@counterpunch.org.

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