Giving Peace a Chance
April 25, 2005
Remember the Geneva Accord? The unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was negotiated by ex-politicians, former peace process negotiators, and cultural figures from both Israel and Palestine, and then mailed or handed out to every single Israeli and Palestinian the negotiators could find. That was back in November 2003. It was a bold and hopeful move. The idea--that most people on the ground in Israel and Palestine would support a genuine plan for peace over continued violence--seemed born out in the polls. Right after the plan was delivered to the people, 53 percent of Israelis and almost 56 percent of Palestinians told pollsters they supported it, according to the Associated Press.
Since that time, both sides have lived through a period of intense violence, as well as the death of Yassir Arafat, the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the construction of barriers in the Occupied Territories that seem to create new, provocative borders . . .and a glimmering possibility for peace.
I went to see two peace activists when they came through town recently. David Levy was a lead Israeli negotiator of Geneva, and a veteran of the Clinton-era peace process negotiations. Rafi Dajani is the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington, DC.
Together, the two men raised hopes for peace, despite a clear-eyed view of the barriers that still stand in the way. The window may be closing, they said, but it is there.
I was most interested in Rafi Dajani's answer to a question about the Palestinian right of return. This, more than any other issue, is a huge sticking point in finally solving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If all of the Palestinian refugees and their families were to return, en masse, to Israel, they would far outnumber Jewish Israelis. As Levy put it, the state of Israel would have to choose between either ceasing to be a democracy, or ceasing to be a Jewish state. Neither choice is acceptable to the Israelis. And yet returning to their family homes is the dream that animates Palestinian refugees, who march in the streets jingling the keys to their former homes. (The claim that the Geneva Initiative puts an end to the Palestinian right of return is a major leftwing knock on it--see ZNet from December 2003: http://www.fromoccupiedpalestine.org/node.php?id=1037. But I think that critique is flawed--I'll get to that in a minute.)
Dajani had the most creative response to the right of return question I have ever heard. Here is what he said: "This is the most sensitive and emotional issue of all. It's so sensitive it is hard to even talk about it. The issue of the right of return has been the cause for a stalemate. No Palestinian will accept that they have no right of return. And no Israeli will accept that they do. We need a solution. I'll tell you what I think might work. I don't speak for the Palestinians, this is just my personal view. . . .We might need to separate the concepts of right from return.
"The basic right of Palestinians to return can't be taken away. We need to implement a return that's not a danger to Israelis and not an insult to Palestinians.
"Here's what I think might work: first, Israel must acknowledge and apologize for its part in creating the refugee problem. . . . Palestinians need closure on this issue. It is a gaping wound.
"Second, they need to agree on a figure [for compensation], taking into account refugees living in the worst of conditions, and that number can't be imposed.
"You're not going to reach a solution where both sides are completely satisfied.
But the right can't be taken away, and the return we can't realistically expect.
"If 4 to 5 million Palestinians went back, we'd be back to a one-state solution.
"I believe if the Palestinians were presented with an apology and a set of choices: compensation, full citizenship in their host countries, citizenship in a new country, or return either to Israel or a new Palestinian state, I believe the number who would chose to return to Israel would be acceptable to Israel.
"You have to understand what return, practically, today, will mean. Will it mean unlocking a door and dusting off the furniture? No. It's gone. Painful as it is to admit. It's gone. Those who return will be Israelis. And given the choice between being second class citizens in Israel or citizens in a free Palestinian state, I believe they would choose the latter."
Dajani's solution is more or less spelled out in the Geneva Accord (I got a copy at the presentation. Check it out online, complete with maps, at www.geneva-accord.org.) What is missing in the text of the accord is the sensitivity of his description of this massive psychic wound to the Palestinians. The sense of meeting a basic need for acknowledgment of the justice of their cause--the apology, the free choice among options, the sincere effort to make things right. These cannot be captured in the dry language of Article 7 on Refugees. Yet the elements are all there.
So back to the American leftwing knock on the Geneva Accord (in Israel, the Accord's association with the political left is such that, according to Levy, it's become something of a liability.) In his ZNet article "The Geneva Accord and the Right of Return," Stefan Christoff begins with a long description of the Al-Baqa'a refugee camp in Jordan. Conditions there are awful. Each day residents commute to Jordan to clean houses and perform other menial jobs for Jordanians.
"In light of the structural political and economic disadvantages defining life for Jordan's Palestinians, especially those living in refugee camps, it is the claim of 'right of return' to Palestine that keeps people's hope for a life of dignity alive," Christoff writes. The Geneva Accord would negate that right, he asserts, and so take away the hope and dignity of the refugees. "The stark contrast between the pronouncements of Israeli and Palestinian politicians in Geneva, and the words spoken by the people on the streets of Al-Baqa'a, are a reminder that liberation struggles cannot be defined by politicians, and that the principles of the Palestinian struggle are kept alive by those living on-the-ground in Palestine and in the refugee camps throughout the world," he concludes ringingly.
But is it really the will of the Palestinian people to continue to live in impoverished camps to maintain principle to the bitter end?
What if there were a real prospect for a free Palestine?
As Dajani put it, the content of the two-state solution is key. Otherwise, "who can blame the Palestinians for saying, 'We don't want it?' If it's not viable, connected, if it will fail economically within five years, if it's crisscrossed by roads and settlements, forget it. 'Give us the vote.' That's the greatest danger Israel faces. It will have to make a choice, either Jewish or democratic, a minority ruling a majority."
And why, I asked Dajani, would the Palestinians not be better off holding out for the vote and full return?
Here is how he answered: "The Palestinian people want a state of their own. There's no international support for anything but a two-state solution. There's no UN or Israeli support for a one-state solution. From a practically realizable viewpoint, it's not going to happen. Think through all of the implications: Israel is not going to accept a one-state solution, so there is going to be more bloodshed. Who is going to suffer more? The Palestinians. There will be no international consensus, so there will be continued bloodshed for decades. Given the discrepancy of job skills and education, if it did happen, Palestinians would be second-class citizens in a tense, unstable state. Until any of these is addressed, it is not a solution on any level."
The combination of pragmatism and idealism is what is so appealing about the Geneva Initiative.
As Levy sees it, after the collapse of Clinton's efforts at Camp David and Taba, a narrative took hold both in Israel and in Palestine that made people pessimistic. In Israel, the story was that Israel had made the most generous offer possible, and the Palestinians rejected it. So there was, to use a constantly invoked phrase, "no partner for peace." On the Palestinian side, the narrative was that even the supposedly most generous offer of the Israelis didn't come close to meeting the Palestinians' basic needs. "Despondency takes root," said Levy. Thinking they'd exhausted the political solutions, people turned to military solutions: suicide bombings, further repression by Israeli troops, and "targeted assassinations."
"We are locked into this embrace of death and it is now more difficult to get out of it," said Levy, "because people think we'd tried the other way."
Yet there is no real military solution, Levy maintains. The onus is on the peace camp, both in Israel and in Palestine, to show that a negotiated solution is possible. Hence the idea for the Geneva Initiative.
The good news, says Levy, is that most Israelis, including Sharon, buy into the idea of a two-state solution. The challenge is to change that into support for specifics.
Other good news, says Dajani, is that President Bush has for the first time in history committed the United States to a Palestinian state, and even used the words "contiguity and viability" to describe it.
The new Palestinian president, Abu Mazen, won on a platform that opposed violence, and supported reform and democratization. He has managed, so far, to maintain a ceasefire. Most importantly, the Israelis cannot dismiss him the way they did Arafat and insist there is "no partner."
The left in Israel is pushing for a vision beyond the withdrawal from Gaza. And Levy thinks it's possible that, rather than using the Gaza withdrawal as an excuse for further entrenchment in the West Bank, Israel might actually continue to close down settlements, once the historic precedent has been set.
Listening to Levy and Dajani, you can't help wanting to be part of the solution.