The Spirit of Geneva

The Spirit of Geneva

The launching of a new Middle East peace plan in Switzerland in early December attracted more than the usual number of luminaries.


The launching of a new Middle East peace plan in Switzerland in early December attracted more than the usual number of luminaries. Former President Jimmy Carter attended the ceremony to offer passionate support for the so-called Geneva Accord, and a host of former and current diplomats, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela, added their backing as well. The star power in attendance was a testament to the ambitious scope of this new proposal, and it reflected as well growing frustration with the seemingly directionless “road map.”

The Geneva Accord, engineered by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Authority negotiator Yasir Abed-Rabbo, is a detailed blueprint for a resolution to the conflict.It seeks to overcome the chief defect of the Oslo process and the road map by settling the most difficult issues right away, rather than putting them off to “final status” talks. Thus it calls for a two-state solution based on near-total Israeli withdrawal from the territories, a division of Jerusalem and the resettlement of most refugees in the new Palestinian state. The agreement also calls for an international force to guarantee implementation and oversight.

The media flurry and high-level maneuvering surrounding the accord may seem odd for what is, after all, merely a “virtual” agreement, signed by ousted politicians with little popular support. But it must be seen in the context of a conflict that has exhausted both sides. After three debilitating years of violence, a spirit of hopelessness has seemed all-pervasive. George W. Bush vowed last June that he would “ride herd” on both parties to make sure they adhered to the road map. Instead, he did next to nothing. Ariel Sharon has refused to halt settlement activity, assassinations or construction of the so-called separation wall, which, according to UN projections, will illegally annex up to 15 percent of Palestinian territory and in effect imprison hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. By August, the Islamists ended their cease-fire with the resumption of suicide bombings.

And yet, even as there seemed to be no exit from the endless conflict, there were fresh stirrings of dissent within Israel, and not all of them from the peace camp. In September a group of Israeli Air Force pilots announced that they would no longer participate in the assassinations in the territories. Moshe Ya’alon, the army chief of staff–the same man who last year declared that Israel should “sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people”–said that Israel’s repressive policies (which the United States is now consciously emulating in Iraq) “are working against our strategic interests.”

Soon afterward, four former heads of Israel’s General Security Service, or Shabak, representing among them almost two decades of leading the country’s most feared and ruthless apparatus of counterterrorism and repression, publicly criticized the direction of government leadership in harsh, almost apocalyptic terms. One of them, Ami Ayalon, said, “We are taking very sure and measured steps to a point where the State of Israel will not be a democracy or a home for the Jewish people.” Carmi Gillon added, “It is clear to me that we are heading for a crash.” These voices have buttressed the left’s warning that under Sharon, Israel is committing moral and economic suicide by pursuing an ultra-Zionist dream of conquering the West Bank, and that in the process it is destroying the more moderate Zionist vision of a secure homeland for the Jewish people.

Many commentators have raised serious and legitimate questions about various aspects of the Geneva Accord, including the cramped sovereignty granted to the new Palestinian state, its rejection of the full right of return for refugees and the fact that it fails to address water rights–a crucial issue in this arid region. Such criticism is to be expected, and is indeed healthy, given that the initiative tries to solve once and for all issues that have bedeviled politicians for more than five decades. But more important than any particular detail is that the Geneva Accord exposes Sharon’s spurious claim that “there’s no one to talk to,” and it recognizes what Sharon and his allies have not: that there is no military solution to this conflict and that the only sane option is direct negotiation between the parties, with the encouragement and active participation of civil society. The Geneva Accord–like the “People’s Voice” initiative by Ami Ayalon and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh, which also calls for a two-state solution based on Israeli withdrawal from the territories and which has so far gathered more than 185,000 signatures of support–is a novel campaign to stimulate public pressure on dysfunctional leaders (indeed, Sharon’s approval ratings have recently plummeted).

This last point is the most encouraging element of these initiatives, and the call for action is echoing around the world. In Israel, some 100,000 attended a peace demonstration in November. In the United States, mainstream religious groups, Jewish peace activists and the Palestine solidarity movement are working to counter the malign influence of AIPAC and the Christian evangelicals who have embraced Greater Israel extremism. A Senate resolution urging the Administration to promote the Geneva Accord and the People’s Voice was supported by Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy and John McCain, among others, by press time.

The Geneva Accord and other recent developments reflect a pragmatic awakening of Israel’s conscience. But the Israeli left is too isolated, and the Palestinian population is too fractured and decimated, to force their leaders to resolve the conflict. They desperately need help from the outside world, in particular the United States, and yet never has Washington been more obstructionist. As the 2004 election approaches, Bush will be inclined to avoid taking serious risks to resolve the conflict. Only a powerful grassroots movement here in America, acting with others around the world and spurring positive action in Congress, will move Washington in a constructive direction.

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