GLOBAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT
Yossi Beilin is chairman of the Yahad Party of Israel and one of the initiators of the Geneva Accord.
By Yossi Beilin
JERUSALEM -- It is hard not to welcome the prospect of Israel finally leaving the Gaza Strip. After 37 years of Israeli occupation of that territory, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw is neither too little nor too late. The problem, rather, is that it seems designed not merely to bypass the issue of an Israeli-Palestinian permanent-status << agreement, but indeed to prevent one.
The last attempt to reach an agreement was made in January 2001, in the final days of the Labor government led by Ehud Barak, in the form of the Taba talks. They were held as a consequence of the Clinton Plan, on which the talks were based. The Clinton Plan, which was accepted -- with reservations -- by both parties in December 2000, was an American bridging proposal, the first of its kind, which meant that the Taba talks were the most significant official step taken toward the end of the most protracted international conflict since the end of the Second World War. But time was short, and the election in Israel was looming.
Both sides promised the other to resume the negotiations immediately after the elections, but when Ariel Sharon was voted in as Israeli prime minister, he announced that he would not be returning to the negotiating table as long as terrorism continued. He failed to put an end to the terrorism, and to this very day the talks between the parties have not been resumed. There has not been such a long break since the Madrid Conference in October 1991. In the Palestinian Intifada that broke out in September 2000, one day after the unnecessary visit made by Sharon (then head of the opposition) to the Temple Mount and which the Palestinian Authority leadership was not ready to prevent, approximately a thousand Israelis have been killed, and about three times as many Palestinians.
The cycle of terrorist attacks and retaliation is never-ending. The belief that only power will defeat the other side has characterized recent years and has, to a large degree, been proved false. Against the background of this prolonged lack of hope, unofficial measures have been taken to return to the negotiating table and to put forward understandings that will put an end to the conflict.
The Geneva Initiative, in the form of a detailed draft of a permanent-status agreement, was launched on December 1, 2003, after more than two years' intensive work between a Palestinian group, headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO, and an Israeli group, which I headed. This initiative proved that it was possible to bridge all the gaps and to reach a common denominator, in the spirit of the Clinton Plan.
The Geneva Initiative, which entered a political vacuum, caused a shock to the system: It won the support of about 40 percent of both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion; it was given serious encouragement by leaders around the world; and it served as proof that there is still someone to talk to -- and there is still something to talk about.
Ariel Sharon is not prepared to pay the territorial price of the Geneva Initiative, which proposes that the border between Israel and the Palestinian state be based on the 1967 lines, with changes made on a reciprocal and equal basis. Nevertheless, he understands that within a few years, a Jewish minority will control a Palestinian majority if a border is not established between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Against this background -- according to Sharon's own words -- he initiated the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In this way, he will release Israel from its control of over 1 million Palestinians, he will strengthen its control of the West Bank and will be able to continue building housing units there, without having to deal with two of the most sensitive issues that have been on the agenda for decades: the future of Jerusalem and the solution of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Sharon's meeting with President Bush was intended to obtain an understanding from the U.S. administration for the Israeli step and its support for several positions, which will make it easier for Sharon to win the agreement of the Likud government ministers and party members to the unilateral measure. There is no doubt that at the White House,
Sharon received precisely what he wanted. From a legal standpoint, President Bush's letter to Sharon contains a distinction between an American commitment and presidential evaluations with regard to the borders of the permanent status. Jurists may claim, justifiably, that this letter contains no new American commitment. The fact that everything that President Bush wrote to Prime Minister Sharon was proposed in President Clinton's plan to both sides -- and was even accepted by them -- is also true.
The claim that all the points that were achieved by Sharon can be found in the Geneva Initiative (the joining of settlement blocs to Israel, the non-mentioning of the right of return of the refugees to Israel and a new border that differs from the 1967-borderlines) is indeed accurate, but in the Geneva Initiative, Palestinian consent was achieved, which isfar more significant than the consent of a third party. Sharon, however, preferred President Bush's letter to negotiations with the Palestinians, and the letter did its job: the Likud ministers were persuaded and the members of the Likud will give -- so it appears -- large support to Sharon on May 2, when they will be asked to express their position on the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But life is more complex than that.
The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is not a substitute for an agreement. The withdrawal is likely to strengthen Hamas and weaken the pragmatic elements, while it is not likely to put an end to the conflict or increase the pressure to find a solution to the problems that have remained open between the two sides. Sharon may indeed believe that the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will save him from having to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians, but without such negotiations and without an agreement such as the Geneva Accord, the conflict will continue to endanger the stability of the region and the security of the parties embroiled in it. Should the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip become fact, it must not be allowed to substitute a permanent-status agreement, but should be the first stage in the process of returning the parties to the negotiating table.
(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services