With the exception of Shimon Peres, no Israeli politician has championed the cause of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation more actively and vigorously than Yossi Beilin. At present the head of the left-of-center Social Democratic Israel (Yahad) party, formerly known as Meretz, Beilin held a number of important posts in the Labor cabinets led by Yitzhak Rabin, Peres and Ehud Barak. As deputy foreign minister under Rabin, he initiated and was the driving force behind the secret talks that culminated with the Oslo accords in 1993. Two years later, Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) reached a secret but unofficial agreement outlining the framework for the eventual conclusion of a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Subsequently serving as minister of justice under Barak, Beilin was intimately involved in the preparations for the Barak-Arafat summit that was held at Camp David in July 2000. He also led the talks on the fate of the refugees as part of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations held in Taba, Egypt, in late January and early February 2001. Last but not least, in October 2003, Beilin and Palestinian leader Yasser Abed Rabbo unveiled what became known as the Geneva accord, a comprehensive yet highly controversial plan for a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
In The Path to Geneva, Beilin provides an illuminating recollection of Israel’s and his own personal quest for a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace between 1996 and 2004. The reader is presented with a diplomatic memoir that vividly captures the ups and downs of the interminable peace process following the initial euphoria in the aftermath of the Rabin-Arafat handshake in September 1993. It is a lamentable tale of unrealistic expectations, missed opportunities and dashed hopes.
Echoing Dennis Ross in The Missing Peace, Beilin reserves his sharpest criticism for Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the Likud prime minister from 1996 to 1999. “In my view,” writes Beilin, “Netanyahu is the person most responsible for the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.” The author maintains that Bibi had no use for Oslo and was never bothered by Palestinian violations of the accords because they provided him with a convenient pretext to violate the agreement himself. Beilin notes that during Netanyahu’s three years in office, more than 4,000 housing units were constructed in the occupied territories, making it that much more politically difficult for Israel to eventually withdraw from these areas. Netanyahu also refused to comply with mutually agreed-upon timetables that called for three Israeli withdrawals at six-months intervals beginning in September 1996 and to finish the negotiations on a permanent settlement by May 1999 because the Palestinians failed to collect unauthorized weapons, did not hand over the names of Palestinian policemen, and did not counteract anti-Israeli incitement.
In late 1996, Beilin formed an informal group of Labor and Likud Knesset members that produced in late January 1997 an unprecedented bipartisan peace plan. It called for a Palestinian state over most of the West Bank, with a majority of Jewish settlers remaining in areas retained by Israel. The plan also envisioned temporary Israeli security control over the Jordan Valley and limited the return of Palestinian refugees into the Palestinian state only. Beilin laments with bitterness that, while the plan was endorsed by Labor leader Shimon Peres, Bibi failed to respond. To make matters worse, Netanyahu sabotaged the peace process by his decisions in March 1997 to erect Jewish homes at Har Homa and a short while later to build 231 housing units at Ras Amud in East Jerusalem.
And while accusing the Palestinian Authority (PA) of failure to reciprocate, Bibi further undermined prospects for peace by his refusal to fulfill agreed-upon Israeli commitments to open safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza and to release to the Palestinians VAT (value-added taxes) funds in a timely fashion.
Beilin provides a relatively more charitable yet still critical assessment of Ehud Barak, who succeeded Netanyahu in July 1999. At the outset, Barak mistakenly assumed that talks between Israel and Syria and between Israel and the PA could be undertaken concurrently, that progress in the negotiations with the PA could be attained without American assistance, and that the PA would agree to his demand for adding a brand new phase into the peace process: the conclusion of a framework agreement prior to completing the negotiations on a permanent settlement. Barak hoped to conclude the framework agreement by early November 2000 and thus fulfill the terms of the permanent settlement within five years, while Arafat insisted on the signing of a permanent accord by May 4, 2000.
Eventually, both sides agreed to sign a framework accord by February 2000 and a permanent settlement by September 2001. As it turned out, the negotiations for a framework agreement began well beyond the deadline in late April 2000. During these talks, Israel presented a map that proposed a Palestinian state on 66 percent of the West Bank, with Israel annexing 14 percent and holding in custody the remaining 20 percent until the signing of a permanent agreement. Beilin faults Barak for assuming that Arafat would be willing and able to emulate the statesmanship of David Ben-Gurion, who in 1947 had reluctantly accepted a constricted Jewish state in 23 percent of historic Palestine, an area less than half of what was allocated to the Arabs in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan.
Beilin argues persuasively that numerous errors of omission and commission by all sides doomed the July 2000 Camp David II summit to failure. Arafat sought to avert the summit altogether because he did not relish being subjected to pressures from a united Clinton-Barak front. Instead of forging yet another accord, Arafat insisted on fulfillment of previously signed agreements, especially the implementation by Israel of the third redeployment of forces and the release of Palestinian prisoners. He eventually decided to attend the summit out of fear that it would take place even without him and because he was reluctant to refuse Clinton’s invitation.
A few days prior to the summit, Beilin met with an unnamed major figure in the Palestinian delegation who proposed that Arafat and Barak hold a private meeting to enhance mutual trust and to discuss various confidence-building measures that each side could undertake before the summit. Specifically, it was suggested that Israel could release several dozen prisoners, commit itself to transfer three villages adjoining Jerusalem to Palestinian control, and agree to initiate the third redeployment of forces after the summit. For his part, Arafat would provide a list of weapons collected by the PA, tighten security cooperation with Israel, and take steps to reduce incitement against Israel. Beilin urged Barak to accept this proposal, but the potentially useful pre-summit meeting with Arafat never took place, nor were the suggested confidence-building measures undertaken.
In a private meeting a week before the summit, Beilin urged Barak to use the Beilin-Abu Mazen Understandings of October 31, 1995, as the basis for negotiations at Camp David. Beilin believed that if they were presented by President Clinton, the understandings would have enabled the parties to avoid needless and time-consuming squabbles and to reach mutually agreeable decisions regarding a final-status agreement. For reasons that Beilin cannot fathom, Barak rejected this advice. Instead, “Barak arrived at Camp David after losing his parliamentary majority, after compelling the Palestinian side to take part in the summit, without adequate preparation and with no escape plan.” The author notes with regret that, because Barak failed to rely on any existing paper as a starting point, the negotiations at the Camp David summit “were conducted according to the method of the bazaar, whereby each side adopts an unrealistic initial stance, and after an argument, ‘concedes’ and compromises on the price.” Consequently, it was extremely difficult for either side to know when the other had in fact reached its red lines.
Beilin holds each party responsible for the deadlock that ended the summit. Barak had adopted a “take it or leave it” approach: while making unprecedented concessions regarding permanent final arrangements, he was also prepared to expose the true face of Arafat as a foe who was unwilling to abandon his rigid positions. To make matters worse, Barak failed to appreciate the need to cultivate a personal working rapport with Arafat as an element of diplomacy. As a result of their frigid relationship, the two held only one face-to-face meeting during their fifteen days at the summit. Beilin further faults Barak for relying on Clinton “to such an extent that the Palestinians had no doubt that every proposal from Clinton was, in fact, an Israeli proposal.”
Like Barak, the Palestinians were poorly prepared for Camp David. Beilin blames continuous power struggles within the Palestinian camp for a paralysis that made it difficult for Arafat to make crucial decisions at critical times. Arafat, we are reminded, came to the summit under duress, “his entourage grumbling that the Americans were attempting to maneuver between the older and younger generations among them.” The bargaining process was further complicated by the Palestinians’ insistence that Israel first agree to fundamental principles (e.g., that the future border between Israel and the Palestinian state should run along the Green Line, that Palestinians have a right of return) while promising to be generous and considerably more flexible on pragmatic details and specific arrangements once such basic agreements were reached.
In Beilin’s judgment, Clinton committed a number of mistakes as well. He recalls that when the Beilin-Abu Mazen Understandings of 1995 were placed on his desk a few days before the summit, Clinton exclaimed to his negotiating team that this document contained the entire framework for a final settlement, and hence that it ought to be signed. However, aside from proposing a few ideas orally, Clinton refrained from placing any written plan before the parties at the summit. In retrospect, the Camp David summit “had not been properly planned and was left, to a large extent, to improvisation.”
Following the failed summit, Beilin urged Barak in August 2000 to continue holding intensive negotiations with the Palestinians over the contentious issues of Jerusalem and the refugees. Barak, however, refused to meet with Arafat before Arafat provided his final response to the Clinton proposals on these matters. Beilin believed that Barak’s approach was a serious mistake because it caused the loss of precious time and pushed Arafat even further into a corner.
As it turned out, any momentum that might have been produced by yet another summit in fact evaporated with the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000. Beilin argues that by visiting the Temple Mount with a large contingent of armed Israeli police, Ariel Sharon “not by chance or unknowingly” provoked the Palestinians and provided a pretext for their uprising. But he blames the Palestinians as well for their resort to violence and for the inexcusable participation of their security forces in strikes against unarmed Israelis. Beilin further maintains that Arafat “encouraged discord in order to justify his failure to sign an agreement with Israel.”
The author challenges the widely held belief that the Palestinian side alone was responsible for sabotaging President Clinton’s last-ditch effort to resuscitate the seemingly moribund peace process toward the very end of his administration. It will be recalled that on December 23, 2000, Clinton presented his suggestions for a comprehensive solution to Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. Under this plan, Israel would annex 4 to 6 percent of the West Bank, enabling it to incorporate approximately 80 percent of the Jewish settlers. As compensation, the Palestinian state would obtain 1 to 3 percent from Israel proper.
The Israeli withdrawal would stretch over a three-year period, during which an international force would gradually replace the IDF. With respect to the thorny issue of the Palestinian refugees, Clinton suggested that the right of return be granted only to those wishing to enter the new Palestinian state. Israel, however, could admit refugees at its own discretion. Lastly, Clinton proposed that the status of Jerusalem be altered to reflect the principle that “what is Arab in the City should be Palestinian and what is Jewish should be Israeli,” with the same principle applied to the Old City. The two delegations were asked to respond within five days as to whether their leaders were prepared to conclude the negotiations on the basis of the outlined ideas. Requiring a “yes” or “no” answer, Clinton warned that if either party could not accept this package deal, the entire proposal would be withdrawn from the table and no longer exist after he left office.
On December 27, 2000, the Israeli government approved the package, albeit with reservations that fell within the stipulated parameters. Reflecting a widely held perception, Dennis Ross claimed in his memoir (The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace) that at a White House meeting with Clinton on January 2, 2001, Arafat in essence rejected the package by attaching reservations that were “dealkillers.” Beilin, however, challenges Ross’s interpretation and claims instead that Clinton “was prepared to interpret Arafat’s reply as ‘Yes, but’ — a readiness in principle to adopt the Clinton Plan, together with a number of reservations that did not turn it on its head.” In Beilin’s view, “Barak and Arafat had accepted the proposal, both of them had adopted it with certain reservations, and the President was now making an effort to bridge the disparities.”
Beilin supports his more positive and even-handed assessment of the parties by noting that at the Israeli-Palestinian talks that began in Taba, Egypt, on January 21, 2001, it was the Clinton Plan that essentially constituted the basis for all further negotiations. The author, who led the negotiations on refugees, concludes that the Taba talks produced “the greatest progress between the two sides since the beginning of Oslo.” Specifically, on the territorial issue, the parties agreed to a 4 percent swap. However, since the Israelis sought to incorporate a larger number of settlers by annexing an additional 2 percent in the West Bank, what remained unresolved was a dispute over an area of a mere 100 square kilometers. To enhance security, the Palestinians agreed to an international presence in the Jordan Valley and to the construction of three Israeli early-warning stations. Both sides accepted Clinton’s proposed formula for Jerusalem. The major remaining bone of contention involved the demand that Israel recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Beilin laments that the Taba talks took place under the deadline of impending Israeli elections. In his judgment, the talks severely damaged Barak’s campaign for re-election because they were regarded by most Israeli voters as clear evidence “that even great concessions couldn’t lead to an agreement.”
Following Ariel Sharon’s election victory in February 2001, Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister of information and culture, jointly decided to continue the work that had been halted at Taba. In January 2002, they established the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Coalition, a group of public figures, military leaders and intellectuals intended to help mobilize public support for a draft permanent-status agreement. The informal discussions on this document were initially held in Ramallah, later moved to Jordan and England as well, and eventually included representatives from the Swiss, Japanese, Jordanian, Canadian and Norwegian governments.
The model draft framework for a final-status agreement was finally made public and signed by an unofficial, self-appointed group of Palestinian and Israeli representatives on October 12, 2003. Known as the Geneva accord, the 50-page document is reproduced in its entirety as the last of five appendices and appropriately lends its title to The Path to Geneva. Building on both the Clinton Plan and the understandings reached at Taba, the Geneva accord envisions a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
The border between the two states would be based on the June 1967 lines, with relatively minor reciprocal modifications on a 1:1 basis in order to enable Israel to annex approximately 75 percent of the Jewish settlers on the West Bank. The major innovations in the plan involve compromises over the two issues that have doomed all previous final-status agreements: in return for Israel’s conceding sovereignty to the Palestinians over the Temple Mount, the Palestinians would give up their insistence on the right of return of refugees into Israel proper.
Beilin makes it clear that the Geneva accord was intended to accomplish two major objectives. First, to prove to skeptics in both camps, especially the Right in Israel, that they do in fact have negotiating partners on the other side, and that peacemaking is therefore possible. Second, and equally important, the Geneva accord is meant to avoid and remedy the basic mistakes that were made at Oslo a decade earlier, especially the fatal decision to postpone negotiations on a permanent agreement. As Beilin correctly points out, the constant delays regarding the final-status negotiations created incentives for extremists on both sides to sabotage the Oslo process from the very beginning.
The Geneva accord has been praised by numerous world leaders, including Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, President Jacques Chirac of France, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Fifty-eight other former world leaders also signed a statement of support.
Prime Minister Sharon, on the other hand, has severely criticized the proposal as subversive, and one of his spokesmen claimed that it was tantamount to suicide by Israel and a “Swiss golden calf” for the Israeli Left. Likewise, Palestinian militants rejected the plan and denounced its drafters as traitors. However, a survey conducted by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and the International Crisis Group in Washington found that more than half of the Israeli and Palestinian respondents accept the basic principles articulated in the document (The New York Times, December 1, 2003).
Given his distinct preference for a negotiated and comprehensive final agreement, it is not surprising that Beilin offers a cogent critique of Sharon’s disengagement plan. In a recent interview, Beilin stated that “a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is better than remaining in Gaza, but it is stupid. We have partners there and we can strengthen these partners by coordinating the withdrawal from Gaza.” (The American Prospect, Online Edition, May 20, 2004). Elaborating this argument in the final chapter of The Path to Geneva, Beilin explains that he is opposed to any unilateral withdrawal by Israel because such a move would not secure legitimacy unless Israel retreated all the way back to the June 1967 Green Line. Furthermore, Israel would be unable to extract any concessions from the Palestinians if it were to go it alone. Last but not least, Sharon’s unilateral approach would necessarily culminate in a Bantustan-style Palestinian state, an outcome that would be unacceptable to the Palestinians and hence pose a grave danger for Israel as well.
As Beilin correctly points out, there are two other alternatives to the Geneva accord and to Sharon’s unilateralism: the status quo and the American-backed Roadmap. The former, Beilin argues, would inevitably create a mortal threat to Israel because, without a negotiated agreement, the status quo is apt to change drastically for the worse in view of two impending developments: possession of nonconventional weapons by Islamic states and the emergence of an Arab majority west of the River Jordan. The Roadmap, on the other hand, remains a problematic option as long as the parties are unable to agree in advance on a framework for a permanent solution.
Twelve years have passed since the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat raised high expectations that the Oslo accords would pave the way to a just and permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace. In The Path to Geneva, the chief architect behind these accords clearly explains how and why the Oslo peace process was fundamentally flawed from the very start. With logic that is unassailable, and with compassionate understanding of the fears and aspirations of both sides, Yossi Beilin presents a most persuasive argument in favor of a mutually negotiated final settlement of all the remaining outstanding issues. It remains to be seen whether his plea that “there is someone to talk to and something to talk about” will be taken to heart by the present Israeli leadership and by fanatics in both camps.