My first interview today was with Michal Radoshitzky, the director of foreign relations for the Geneva Initiative, an organization which promotes domestically and internationally the model permanent status agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Launched in December 2003, negotiated under the lead of former Israeli and Palestinian Authority government ministers Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo respectively, the accord addressed and proposed comprehensive solutions to “all issues vital to ensuring the end of the conflict”.
The document directly addresses key issues: namely Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and security proposing general plans for each. Since 2003, the organization has continued its consultations with its sister Palestinian organization based in Ramallah and developed out more specific ideas and strategies, both for resolution of the conflict and for the negotiation process itself. Many of these documents are available on their website. As always, Wikipedia offers a short summary as well.
At the time, the Accord was roundly rejected by the Israeli government as unwarranted and illegitimate. However, a recent poll by the Truman Institute at Hebrew University found that Israeli support for the Geneva Accords and Clinton Parameters (laid out at Camp David in 2000) stands at about 52% with opposition at 37%. Palestinian support and opposition was split evening at 49-49 with 2% undecided. Asking my host how they account for the 37% opposition, she said that there is always in Israel about 30% opposition; those who believe that the land is divinely promised or that “the land itself is more important than the state.”
Notably, support is less clear when examining particular aspects of the accord, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem (38% for-56% against), final borders (45-48), and refugees (37-50). That said, the numbers do seem to indicate that at least a bare majority of Israelis remain supportive of a two-state solution as proposed by these plans even if they are not overly enamored with the details. This, however, argued my host, is less important than demonstrating that a two-state solution is in fact possible and that there there is indeed a Palestinian partner. That senior Israeli and Palestinian politicians and negotiators were able to come together to negotiate this accord is an accomplishment in itself, even if it lacks the force of law.
The work of the Geneva Initiative today is in two parallel channels: education and diplomacy. On the educational side, the organization specifically targets groups which they have identified as having a significant influence on wider policy and political circles, namely academics, journalists, and parliamentary assistants in Israel and abroad. Additionally, they have reached out to two key Israeli constituencies: supporters of Shas (typically Mizrachi charedim) and the Russian speaking community. Both are seen as quite hawkish and resistant to negotiations with the Palestinians.
To reach these groups, the Initiative reaches out to the leaders of these communities to educate and explain the “fruits of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.” They do this both by conducting regular tours of the current security barrier and the border proposed by the Geneva Accords. They also lead regular seminars which bring together Israelis and senior Palestinian figures for informal diplomatic discussions. Among the exercises they engage in are simulation games and role swapping, such that Israelis and Palestinians are forced to delve into and critically examine each other’s narratives.
In terms of diplomacy and politics, much of their work is focused on keeping up with current events through modifying the annexes to the accord and issuing policy papers responding to particular developments. One such paper my host showed me addressed PM Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University last year, demonstrating how the Geneva Accords speak directly to the key points he raised as necessary conditions for peace. Everything that has been presented as an obstacle to peace, she contended, has been addressed by the Geneva Initiative. Apparently officials even in the current government have made use of their work in preparing for negotiations, which my host found encouraging. Whether they call it the Geneva Initiative, the Washington Parameters, or the Netanyahu Plan, it is of no importance. What is important is resolving the conflict.
This led me to the obvious question of why? Why is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so important and so pressing? Here she cautioned that everyone’s answer is likely to be somewhat different, but she narrowed it to three variables for consideration: the state as Jewish, the state as democratic, and the land upon which the state is based. For her, the three cannot all go together in one equation. Either Israel may keep all the land and lose its democratic or Jewish character, or it may lose some of the land and preserve the latter two. Her preference is for the latter option. In her belief, if Israeli is to be a homeland for the Jewish people and a democratic state, the two state solution is best. As for the Palestinians, she argued, they will never be happy until they have a state. Denying them this perpetuates the conflict.
Moreover, the current “window of opportunity (for a settlement) is not forever open.” In order to make an agreement work, Israel needs the support and assistance of the international community to both reach and implement it. In particular, she believes, Israel cannot deal with the problem of refugees alone. This will require the direct commitment of resources, financial and physical. Israel also needs the support of the Arab world. Particularly because of the political division between Fatah and Hamas, Israel needs the Arab world to provide guarantees and assistance to assure the stability of a future Palestinian state. Both “parties”, however, are getting sick and tired of the conflict. While she did not specify if this meant they would disengage or only more heavily invest themselves in it, it seems for her that both would be intolerable.
Finally, she indicated that as long as Israeli continues to expand and develop new settlements, it is eating away at both the physical continuity and political possibility of a Palestinian state. To leave the Palestinians with “bantustans” only ensures that a Palestinian state will never be a political reality. My host took care, however, to differentiate between two kinds of settlements: those that have been built for security purposes and those that have been built deep inside of the West Bank.
The former, she believes, were reasonable at one point in Israel’s history, but that they are no longer relevant to the current geopolitical environment. Rather, they are a strategic burden to the state. To pull out of contested territories and to have the world recognize a legitimate international border would do much more to bolster state security. The other kind only serve the purpose of preventing the creation of a Palestinian state. This, she believes, is illegitimate and damaging.
All this begs the question of what Israel’s final borders should be. Although the Geneva Accord is quite detailed in its prescriptions, I asked her to give me a general sense nonetheless. Consistent with many conversations I have had with the political left over the last two weeks, her immediate response was that any resolution should be based upon the pre-1967 borders with land swaps. That said, it would be practically impossible to return to these borders given the expansion of Israeli settlements.
Therefore, the Accord proposes annexing the three major settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Beitar Illit, and Pisgat Ze’ev as well as the constricted municipality of Ma’ale Adumim (not including E1). In return, they have suggested the Palestinian state be given territory around Gaza which is primarily agricultural, giving them both prime growing land and requiring the relocation of few Israelis. As for the major settlement of Ariel, described by many as a “finger” into the West Bank, it would be dismantled and abandoned. This area, they believe, would be prohibitively expensive to patrol and presents a significant “security headache” for the state.
Finally, I pressed her on the issue of holy sites. She maintains that one must separate Jerusalem from Hebron and other places. Everywhere you dig in this country, she contends, you will find a religious site. If Israel agrees to a two-state solution, this necessarily means that some of these sites will be in a Palestinian state. This is the point of giving up land; that you are “giving up your history there” just as Palestinians must give up having refugees return to Israel in exchange for peace. If relations between Israel and a new state are positive, visitations by Israelis will be possible, but this is for the future (The accord itself specifies that such sites will have special access arrangements made and that each party must guard and protect them and the pilgrims who visit them [Article 10]).
As for Jerusalem, the difference is that the Accord spells out a detailed map of what the city will look like, with the Jewish and half the Armenian quarter under Israeli sovereignty, and the remaining portions under Palestinian sovereignty. The Old City in particular is to be treated both as a shared space and a no-man’s land under international monitoring and control (Article 6). Here the details are quite specific and worth exploring, both for proponents and opponents of the accord. See the full text in English here.
Unfortunately, my host was pressed for time, so we were not able to get into greater detail on any of these sensitive issues. Her main point, however, stands that this Accord, even as a product of private, track-two diplomacy, is the result of Israelis and Palestinians coming together to negotiate. Admittedly, the participants were not constrained by domestic audience costs nor limited by international pressure or condemnation such that the resulting accord should be approached with caution as a rigid framework for negotiations. If policymakers are serious about a two-state solution, however, it should be encouraging to them that such a model, both for interaction and resolution, exists.