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An Optimistic Voice in Israel | The Nation

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An Optimistic Voice in Israel

Israel's military defeat in Lebanon has created new opportunities for peace – that's what Israeli Knesset member and peace movement leader Yossi Beilin told Terry Gross on the NPR show "Fresh Air" on August 23. Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Meretz party, has served in different Labor governments, and was one of the architects of the 1991 Oslo Accords and the 2003 Geneva Accord.

The Israeli government and military today are facing popular anger and strong criticism over their failures in Lebanon. Beilen recalled that the government faced similar criticism after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. But that war, he pointed out, opened the way to a historic peace treaty with Egypt -- the Camp David agreement of 1978 – and a peace between the two countries that continues to this day.

That treaty was possible, Beilin argued, because after 1973 Egypt "felt there was there was a kind of symmetry" with the Israeli military, rather than feeling "they had been totally defeated," which had been the case with the 1968 war.

But, Terry Gross asked, who should Israel negotiate with? Hamas and Hezbollah don't recognize Israel or its right to exist. "I would negotiate with everybody who is ready to negotiate with me," Beilin replied. "Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas is ready to negotiate with Israel, which leaves us with the government of Lebanon, with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and with the Syrian government. All of them are speaking about an agreement with Israel." He suggested convening an international conference with those participants.

But withdrawing from Lebanon, and then withdrawing from Gaza, did not bring peace. Haven't these experiences turned Israeli public opinion against peace negotiations? "I don't think so," Beilin replied. What Israelis have lost faith in is unilateral withdrawals. In contrast to the "non-agreements" around the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, "We have had a peace agreement with Egypt since ‘75, with Jordan since ‘94, and these are big achievements," he said. "People are disenchanted about unilateralism. . . . They understand now that peace agreements do not have substitutes."

The crucial example: Syria. It's possible that the entire Lebanon war, and the arming of Hezbollah, could have been avoided if Israel had signed a peace treaty with Syria in 1999 – "and paid the price of the Golan Heights to have this peace." That would have had "a huge impact on Lebanon," which Syria has more or less controlled. Israel at that point had a Labor government headed by Ehud Barak; at the end of 1999, he decided not to sign a peace treaty with Syria, and instead to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally. The consequences of those decisions are now clear.

But when Hamas controls a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature, and when Hamas doesn't recognize Israel or its right to exist, how can you have a negotiated peace with the Palestinians? "Here the procedure is quite clear," Beilin replied. "Hamas is telling the world that it is ready for Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel. Once he ends his negotiations, he will have to bring that agreement either to a referendum or to a meeting of the Palestinian national council. If there is a majority for such an agreement, it will become a reality. . . . This is the way Hamas can stick to its ideology, but enable others to negotiate." In the end, the leaders of Hamas "will not be the ones to shake our hands, but they will benefit from an agreement with Israel."

But hasn't the war strengthened the determination of Hamas and Hezbollah to seek the destruction of Israel? Beilin insisted that "There is a big difference between the two groups. Hezbollah is not a potential partner." Hamas is different, and "at the end of the day, if Hamas gives Mahmoud Abbas the mandate to negotiate, there is a possibility of getting an agreement. This is not the situation with Hezbollah."

But hasn't the rise of Islamic extremism throughout the region reduced the chances for a negotiated peace? "I would like to reject the idea that what we have is a war of civilizations or war of religions," Beilin said. "Everywhere you have extremists, but also moderate people and pragmatic people. Wisdom also requires creating the coalition of sanity, those people who want to live and want their kids to live. These are the majorities everywhere."

The strategic key for Israel, he said, is "to put an end to the war situation in the inner circle" – Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians – "so that war here will not create a pretext for those who want to fight forever." Beilin gave credit for that idea to Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli fanatic who opposed his signing the Oslo Acccords. Rabin "wanted peace in the inner circle before Iran became a nuclear power, and before the hatred of Israel in the Arab world would make anyone who made peace with us be seen as a traitor. He was right." But "it's still not too late."

Finally Terry Gross asked Yossi Beilin how optimistic he was feeling now. After a pause, he said, "I believe there is an opening which wasn't there before. The question is whether it is big enough to change the situation. . . . It is more than a matter of optimism. It is a matter of creativity, of doing something." Here he refused to call himself an optimist, which he defined as a person "who believes that the situation will be better tomorrow." Instead, he concluded, "I believe it is my task to make it so."

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