Jews, Arabs & the Geneva Accord

Against the Current, No. 109, March/April 2004

Yehudit Harel & Dr. Amr El Zant

TALKING PUBLICLY ABOUT the virtues and hazards of the Geneva accords these days is not an easy task, as the topic is both highly emotional — rightly so, as a matter of utmost importance — and highly divisive.

Yet precisely because the matter is so important we should not act emotionally but in accord with a plan as level-headed as we can devise, with as much a sense of proportion as we can amass. And it takes little sense of proportion to see that perhaps we cannot overcome the deep divisions right now; but we also have little time for coming to an agreement. For otherwise, decisions will be made for us, and they will not be better than those that either side offers now.

The first step is to examine what parameters characterize any possible peace agreement that could be even remotely acceptable to the majority of the Israelis and Palestinians — as an acceptable pragmatic political platform, not an agreed-upon ideological vision and joint credo.

The recent draft of the proposed Geneva Accord, although it has rightly raised an extensive and fierce controversy in Israel, Palestine, and our Arabic speaking environment, at least in one respect must win general recognition and appreciation: The draft is an exercise, even if only intellectual, which represents an important practical and political potential.

The main reason for this controversy appears to be the starkness with which this document outlines the difficult choices that both sides have to make on the road to peace; the proof that a relatively straightforward road of escape from the Middle East turmoil is still plausible, at least in principle, probably for a very limited time.

The Geneva document reflects the realization, as Sartre would have put it, the realization that the parties really are “condemned to be free;” that the direction of the current bloody situation does not originate from uncontrollable, predetermined forces, but is open to changes that we should make in a conscious choice here and now, not in some indefinite future.

This is a novelty, let us agree. Throughout the ill-fated Oslo process, the Israeli public has shown hardly any readiness for a serious discussion that would make it see what parameters characterize any possible peace agreement that could be even remotely acceptable to the Palestinian side.

Parting With Ambiguity

The Israeli public has never taken seriously the demands for a complete return to the 1967 borders, for dismantling the big mass of colonial settlements illegally constructed on the occupied Palestinian land, to relinquish the exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem and to seek a just and fair and possible solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees.

Until the publication of the proposed Geneva Accord (GA), the vast majority of Israeli Jews probably considered such demands outrageous, rather than issues for a lasting peace. Since there was no serious discussion the force of these requirements was never understood. They were taken as reflections of a fundamentally flawed and patently uncompromising attitude bordering on the irrational, if not embodying plainly evil intentions on the side of the Palestinians and their supporters.

The Geneva document represents the first serious attempt by some members of the Israeli mainstream in parting with what is known in Israel as “constructive ambiguity.” This ambiguity has characterized the attitude of the Israeli Zionist left when it was in power.

It is a state of affairs that has allowed Israel to pretend that it seeks compromise, while continuing with the policy of accomplishing facts that deepen the claws of the occupation and aggravate the misery of the Palestinian people under this occupation.

The Geneva document outlines in great detail the exact price that its authors think that both parties have to pay and what both parties may gain. Consequently, the demarcation line is drawn between serious discussion and wishful illusions conceived within the confines of irrational nationalist pseudo-political discourse.

Let us look then at the main practical components of the GA’s proposals for a possible agreement that could lead to peace. Israel is to end the occupation and withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967, except for the 2.2% of that territory that Israel will annex in exchange for the full sovereignty for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including the Arab neighborhoods of East
Jerusalem and the land that they will receive as an equivalent territorial compensation for the land that Israel will annex.

The sovereign Palestinian State will remain non-militarized. Israel will legalize and retain some settlements in the occupied West Bank that house roughly 300,000 settlers, mainly in the post-1967 Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem.

Palestinians will gain sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the Christian holy places in the Old City of Jerusalem; Israel will maintain its sovereignty over the Jewish quarter of the Old City, and security will be overseen by a permanent international force that will also guarantee free access for Jews to the Jewish holy sites.

Geneva and Right of Return

Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and the 1967 wars will be granted unlimited right of return to the Palestinian territories, and the right to receive compensation for property and dispossession; some refugees will be able to return to Israel proper, though it will be up to the discretion of Israel to determine how many refugees it will allow returning there.

Although this will render the return to Israel limited and symbolic, one cannot deny that the refugees will be returning to Palestine.

The accord’s Article 7, concerning the refugees, discusses the practical aspects of the proposed settlement of the tragedy of the 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees. The text explicitly refers to the principles set by the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 11th, 1948, which demanded “that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible” (meaning the Israeli authorities).

The GA likewise explicitly refers to the November 22, 1967 United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for negotiations and the return of Israel to safe borders, and to the March 29, 2002 Beirut Arab Summit Declaration demanding that Israel accept a “just solution” to the Palestine refugee problem.

As stated before, the options for the Palestinian refugees outlined in the Geneva document include the unlimited right to return to Palestinian territory, a symbolic right to return to Israeli territory, the right to compensation for property loss and for the pain suffered as refugees, as well as the termination of the refugee status for them all.

In this way the proposed Geneva Accord implicitly recognizes the right for return (ROR) of the Palestinian refugees. Therefore, despite the fact that this right is not explicitly mentioned in the GA text, and that Israel has de facto veto power to limit the number of returnees returning to Israel proper, the references to the above mentioned resolutions must be considered an indicator of at least implicit recognition of ROR.

The above parameters seem to provide the grounds for a pragmatic and feasible political solution. Regrettably, the accord does not deal with the historical injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people, nor with matters of moral and historical responsibility and culpability of both Palestinian and Israeli leaderships.

These matters were deliberately avoided and ducked, as the partners could not bring themselves to totally escape from the intellectual prison in which their ideological biases and current public opinions have confined them.

Consequently, the Palestinian partners allowed the proposed agreement to include only an oblique recognition of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees; and the Israeli partners claimed, and continue to claim, that this right is simply not recognized in the proposed agreement.

Once more, in order to market the latest document, the Israeli initiators opted for the easy way out: clouding simple issues though they are central and will emerge in due course in all clarity and may easily torpedo the whole peace effort. This is not serious. It is painful.

Evasion and Responsibility

For reasons that are all too obvious, let me now limit my comments to the painful lack of seriousness only among the Israeli participants of the initiative for the proposed Geneva accord. Their evasiveness is understand<->able: Even they, not to mention most members of their constituency, cannot grasp what sort of threat the Zionist ideology and policy that currently dominate Israel — de facto or de jure — pose, not only from the vantage point of the victims but also, because of that, from the viewpoint of the real Israeli national interest.

Therefore, they cannot understand the immense symbolic importance that so many Palestinians and non-Zionist Israelis attach to Israel’s recognition of its share of responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy. Whether we accept this or not, we must recognize that within the framework of current mainstream Zionist Israeli thought, the issues that this controversy raises evoke serious conceptual difficulties that threaten to undermine not only the intellectual edifice of Zionism but also the whole of the Israeli national consensus.

These issues are therefore painstakingly avoided and denied. But this cannot continue indefinitely. It is our role to demystify and problematize these issues and call for a different, honest and straightforward attitude.

Jewish Statehood?

Regarding another most controversial issue, the agreement takes as given the mainstream Zionist conventional wisdom concerning the rights of the Jewish people, as a nationality, to statehood, therefore without restricting this right to the Jewish-Hebrew collective in Palestine.

This acknowledgement is nevertheless explicitly qualified by a clear statement concerning the necessity of safeguarding the rights of all citizens of both states:

“(T)his agreement marks the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, without prejudice to the equal rights of the parties’ respective citizens.”

Note that despite the recognition of the claim concerning the right of the “Jewish people” to statehood, the above statement disregards Israel’s claim to be an exclusive Jewish state, the one state of all Jews the world all over.

Consequently, the statement may set a conceptual framework that is open enough to enable the emergence of future processes needed for transforming Israel’s notions of citizenship and nationality from their current exclusive, “volkish,” tribal one, towards normalization, towards a modern notion of citizenship as is practiced in the characteristic western liberal democratic nation-state.

It may be paving the way for the advent of a truly multicultural society, characterized by universalistic values and tolerance — notions so sorely lacking not only in Israel-Palestine, but all over the region.

The Geneva document has obviously pragmatic as well as ideological shortcomings. Nevertheless, it has the potential for creating a popular movement inside Israel and perhaps also one inside Palestine, to support political leaderships that are seriously committed to put an end to the ongoing tragedy by a reasonable and acceptable political — not ideological — compromise between the two peoples; not the most just one, nor one readily palatable to either side.

The proposed Geneva Accord serves as a timely reminder to the Israeli public that, contrary to claims of diverse Israeli prime ministers, media pundits and diverse political forces, someone on the other side is ready to talk with us; there is an option different from the primordial, instinct driven, attempt to bludgeon into submission an outgunned but stubborn opposition.

Therefore, the proposed Geneva Accord deserves a guarded support of all those seeking reconciliation in the Middle East. Such a guarded support does not negate the critical reading of this document with the intent to make up for its deficiencies and to improve it.

Pragmatism and Ideology

For those seeking to put an end to the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is an urgent need to separate two levels of dealing with it — levels that have always been so intrinsically intertwined.

On the pragmatic level there is the need to delineate a clear and reasonable platform for a political compromise that can answer the most burning and crucial needs of both sides, and thus be mutually accepted and implemented. The proposed Geneva Accord does just that.

On the other hand, there is the ideological and theoretical level. To support a pragmatic way to end the conflict does not mean submission to Zionist ideology, nor ending the public debate about the roots of the conflict and its ideological background and biases.

It does not mean to stop striving for a better solution. On the contrary, this debate must and should go on in the public sphere, as it cannot be seriously expected to be conclusively incorporated at this stage in any formal agreement between the respective parties.

We cannot afford to reject a feasible proposal for an agreement and forsake an opportunity to achieve a possible and tangible solution in the present, because the ideological aspects have not been dealt with satisfactorily. It seems to me grossly immoral to hold the Palestinian question hostage until the ultimate solution to the ideological problems is universally agreed up<->on, or to wait for the lucky day that an ultimately “just” solution will be achieved and implemented pragmatically as well as ideologically.

It is precisely at this junction that Israeli public opinion has to become engaged — cautiously supporting the proposed Geneva Accord while debating it in efforts to make up for its shortcomings and to promote a vision and values that can lead to a better, more just solution and to genuine historical reconciliation between the two peoples.

The best way to prepare the Israeli public for what it still rejects out of hand as concessions to the Palestinians, is to lead a significant part of this population to the understanding of (not necessarily to an agreement with) the Palestinian perspective regarding the history of the conflict: to grasp the meaning of the discourse concerning the Nakba [catastrophe–ed.] — the history of the dislocation of the Palestinians.

This means to convey the message to the average Israeli Jew that it is not only the state of Israel, or the Jewish collective, that is paying a price for the absence of a lasting peace. Israeli Jews should be brought to understand why, from the viewpoint popular among the Palestinians, an agreement based on the Geneva document is far from embodying a wish for the “destruction of Israel” or the Jewish community in it.

Rather it represents what Palestinians see as an extremely generous offer from a “peace partner” that not only exists, but is in fact ready to part with most of its native homeland for the sake of a lasting peace after more than a hundred years of dispossession, immense suffering and sacrifice.

Further Visions

The struggle for a radically different solution to the conflict — one such as a One State solution, a federation or confederation based on democracy, multiculturalism and binational values, necessarily involves both legal and sociological prerequisites, both in the Israeli society and in the Palestinian one.

The promotion of such a desirable vision needs a lot of effort and commitment, as under the present climate of conflict, characterized by fear and hostility, neither is very likely to be attained in the short term. For these concepts necessitate the negation and rejection of the tribal tendencies of romantic nationalism; and the latter were invented to deal with, and thus by necessity thrive in, precisely this type of situation.

We should not wait for all the ideological matters in dispute to find their satisfactory solutions and meanwhile sacrifice the possibility to attain an immediate solution, even if the immediate solution is far from being ideal or absolutely just — as long as it is one that can open the way for treating the burning ailments of both societies, and tending to their urgent immediate needs without compromising basic principles of fairness and acceptability.

Concluding our presentation we would say the following: The legal framework of the Geneva documents recognizes one basic requirement — full equal rights in national terms for the two competing peoples in the land of Palestine-Israel. (The document also explicitly demands the guarantee for full equal rights to members of one nation who may reside in the jurisdiction of the other.)

The Geneva document offers a criterion that applies also to the Arab intellectual elites — large segments of which have long been saying that they favor “peace in principle,” but in fact have consistently rejected every detailed political platform for peace without offering any equivalent alternative.

Their attitude towards this and other peace proposals must be regarded, as pointed out by Mohamed Sid Ahmed in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, as an indicator of whether their claims are serious. As he put it, their attitude to the Geneva document will show whether their support of the two state model is “strategic” or just tactical — as many on the Israeli Right claim — or whether the final goal is indeed a truly secular, democratic, multicultural society in Palestine.

This is an option we clearly prefer but unfortunately in the present it has no serious and open political support either in Israel or in Palestine.

Let us hope that the day will come when we will have peace, as Spinoza has put it: “. . . Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice.” Till then, however, we must work hard and start from a much lower starting point, such as the one that the Geneva Accord provides. –December 6, 2003

ATC 109, March-April 2004