A new Israeli-Palestinian peace drive

News Analysis

Pressure is mounting for a negotiated end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, despite continued obstruction by the right-wing Sharon government. Two grassroots initiatives have ignited a new level of debate in Israel, the occupied territories of Palestine, and around the world.

The Geneva Accord, negotiated by teams of Israelis and Palestinians led by Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former Palestinian Authority (PA) information minister, is one of these. It was signed at a ceremony on Dec. 1 in Switzerland.

The second is the “People’s Voice,” a petition initiated by Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, and Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, which has garnered 170,000 signatures in recent months.

The Accord is the most controversial because the nongovernmental, grassroots effort has galvanized international support. Far-right Israeli critics, in particular, have objected to the role of “unofficial” leaders and groups drafting a proposed solution to the crisis.

Both initiatives set a framework for a definitive two-state solution rather than an open-ended plan like the Oslo agreement or the U.S.-backed road map. The latter official agreements left key questions – like the establishment of the Palestinian state, jurisdiction over Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and refugees’ rights to return to Israel – for later negotiations (which were never concluded), leading to collapses in the peace process.

Rabbo told CNN that the Accord is an attempt by Palestinians and Israelis to work together for a peace agreement. But he also said, “In the end the decision will be made by the people rather than a decision of extremist forces.”

Rami Elhanan, of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families organization, whose teenage daughter was killed in a suicide bombing, told the World from Jerusalem, “We have a great sense that something is starting to move.” He described the mood among Israelis as a “new acceptance and ability to discuss” a peace agreement.

Elhanan also said Israelis and Palestinians are faced with an impasse that must be broken to stop the suffering on both sides. “The agreement is on the table and everyone knows it … doesn’t matter what you think politically,” he said. “The intervention of the outside world is crucial in this very, very delicate point.”

Elhanan added that sometimes you can judge the effectiveness of an action by the reaction of the right wing, which has been “sharp, vicious and ugly.”

Sharon and the far right in Israel rejected the peace efforts and called the Accord’s Israeli negotiators “subversive.” Two cabinet ministers called them “traitors - a crime punishable by death.”

The Accord has placed the Bush administration in a difficult position. Remaining silent is a problem for their 2004 election strategy. But showing support for the Accord does not coincide with their vision of a Middle East dominated by U.S. interests.

On Dec. 1, 58 world leaders declared their support for the two initiatives in an advertisement in the International Herald Tribune. They said, “The Geneva and People’s Voice initiatives both reflect public opinion and can help give it new momentum.” The statement also urged that practical steps be taken and supported by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as by the U.S., the European Union, and Russia.

Some Palestinian groups in the Palestinian Authority oppose the Accord. Several thousand Hamas members marched in Gaza objecting to its proposals on the rights of Palestinian refugees, although Palestinian opinion polls continue to show support for the initiative.

At the last minute the PA sent representatives to Switzerland to read a letter from President Yasser Arafat. Arafat applauded the effort, but strongly cautioned the participants to protect the hard-won UN and international legal rights of Palestinian refugees.

He called for the implementation of UN Resolution 194, which advocates the right of Palestinians to return to lands within Israel’s borders. He also urged the participation of the UN in peace efforts and the upholding of the international legal and human rights of Palestinian refugees.

Israeli Knesset member Mohammed Barakeh, representing the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that his participation in the ceremony was an act of support for the hope that the accord engenders, despite questions on the refugee issue. “The most problematic clause of the accord relates to refugees,” he said. “For me, someone who comes from a family of refugees, the wound is still bleeding. But it is important to express support for the accord, which is not an agreement but an attempt to create some hope.”

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org.