The informal Geneva accord shows that an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is possible. The document was negotiated by Yossi Beilin on the Israeli side and Yasser Abed Rabbo on the Palestinian side, with the involvement of a number of knowledgeable and concerned individuals representing both Israeli and Palestinian interests. It shows us that a peaceful political settlement is possible and that intellectually this process is relatively simple. The document is especially important because it is a reminder that conflict is not inevitable despite the attitudes expressed by the Sharon government and others on both sides. As such, it restores the flickering light of hope’s candle.
Nevertheless, the real problem does not lie in the possibility of a negotiated settlement, but is instead a function of marked differences of understanding and interpretation between Israelis and Palestinians. In this sense, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not so much what is seen above the surface, but what lies beneath. The profound nature of the conflict is symbolized by the idea of the “right of return” which would allow large numbers of Palestinians to enter Israeli territory to live. For Israelis this idea is untenable as it would undermine the country’s status as a Jewish state. For Palestinians, the issue is bound to basic questions of identity and principle.
While it might be possible to address this issue in a serene fashion, it would probably require a great deal of time and would depend on the establishment of relations of trust between both sides. In the meantime, the best the Palestinians can hope for is a recognition in principle of the “right of return,” and the hope that a plan can be established for family reunification between those who stayed in Israel after 1948 and their relatives, along with a system of compensation for the loss of property for all others. But even if stated in those terms, as matters now stand, Israelis and Palestinians would find themselves in substantial disagreement, even though on the Israeli side of the negotiations, sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem was conceded. This is what arose at Camp David II in July 2000, and that is why the present Geneva accord fudges the issue.
No one knows for certain how the issue of the “right of return” is experienced by both sides. Maybe a negotiation is possible if properly framed within the context of an overall agreement, where both sides would feel that they gained enough with respect to some issues to justify being more flexible on others.
However, assessing these and other reciprocal concessions can only be made with reference to the context in which a negotiation takes place. Yet, what is the context of the Geneva accord? Two groups of decent, well-meaning persons who seek to show that peace is possible reach an agreement while working in Geneva with the financial support of a Swiss professor from a prominent and wealthy family. As realistic as the exercise was, and as close to any negotiated text as this one is, the context is nonetheless largely academic. The negotiators do not face the political pressures of their constituencies. They do not need to negotiate with an eye to convincing their governments to approve the agreement and their parliaments to ratify it. They did not have to take into account political opposition, jealous friends, difficult opponents, and a critical media. Thus, what I refer to as an academic context is really a politically and emotionally antiseptic environment.
The last three years have been devastating: some 3,000 Palestinians and 800 Israelis have been killed; some 25,000 Palestinians and 5,000 Israelis have been injured; the Palestinian economic and social system is shattered; and, Israel’s sense of security is totally shaken. There has been an increase in de-humanization on both sides leading to increased animosity, if not hatred, and a significant loss of confidence and hope. For some Israelis, the only answer is a concrete wall dividing them from the Palestinians. For some Palestinians, the situation demands an all-out war. Within this context, it is extremely difficult to reach an agreement.
The Geneva accord is highly laudable, but it is politically unrealistic as to what it purports to be. However, its greatest merit lies in the dissemination of the document, and the intellectual ferment it is creating all over the world. In other words, regardless of its merits, the initiative can rekindle an optimistic spirit for peace. The document may help develop a new context within which real political negotiations can take place and, if they move well enough, future talks may rely on the text of the Geneva accord to advance the peace process and provide a much-needed resolution to a long and painful conflict. This is why all concerned in this effort merit our encouragement, and deserve our appreciation.