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Comment & Analysis: The Case for Geneva

The Guardian Editorial, 06.01,04

Barely a month has passed since the launch of the latest Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, the Geneva accord, and the number of detractors and supporters seems to be evenly divided.

Which is not bad, given the ferocity of attacks from the Israeli establishment (including the Labour opposition). On the Palestinian side the initiative by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo has been criticised for practically forsaking the refugees' right of return. On the ground, however, the polls indicate increasing levels of support, the latest showing 50% among Israelis and about 40% among Palestinians.

Many of the document's detractors do not seem to have paid much attention to the actual content, but have been swayed by populist sentiments against crossing the "red lines" (real and imagined) concerning refugees and Jerusalem. More reasoned arguments have come from critics assembled in public forums to discuss the agreement. Of particular interest are the views of Azmi Beshara, the Palestinian leader inside Israel, and Hani al-Masri, an analyst for the al Ayyam newspaper.

They have four main criticisms. First, they say, the agreement was signed by marginal groups on the Israeli side but semi-official figures on the Palestinian side - giving the Palestinian concessions legitimacy without the benefit of a negotiating partner, which amounts to a free ride for the Israelis.

Secondly, they argue, the Palestinians gave up the right of return for refugees without the Israelis admitting any responsibility for creating the refugee problem.

Thirdly, they say, the document gives legitimacy to the Zionist character of the state, by describing Israel as the state of the Jewish people - which undermines the civil rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel, and accepts the extraterritorial nature of the state of Israel.

Finally, on the question of exchanged lands (the so-called swap), they say the document proposes that the Israelis receive substantial lands in three blocs (the northern bloc, the Jerusalem settlements and the Etzion bloc) while the Palestinians receive an equal quantity of only marginal land - mostly east of Gaza and south of Hebron.

These are serious criticisms that should be borne in mind when final status negotiations take place. On one issue, though, Beshara and al-Masri are mistaken. Geneva does not give legitimacy to Israel as the "state of the Jewish people". The text actually refers to "the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood", adding that this recognition does not "prejudice the equal rights of the parties' respective citizens" (an awkward echo of the 1917 Balfour declaration).

On Jerusalem, two further pitfalls in the document can be identified. The part of the agreement stipulating that Jewish neighbourhoods should be annexed to Israel, while Arab neighbourhoods go to the Palestinian state, seems to apply only to East Jerusalem and not to the Arab suburbs of West Jerusalem. And the inclusion of the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim would disrupt the geographic contiguity of the proposed Palestinian state.

Much has also been made of the finality of claims - namely that the Geneva document stipulates "the permanent and complete resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. No claims may be raised except for those related to the implementation of this agreement." This clause does not prevent individual claims for prop erty losses being pursued by refugees unhappy with the collective settlement.

Nevertheless, the document successfully supersedes the dilemma posed by the Oslo accords: that gradualism, phased withdrawals and "confidence-building measures" do not work between a colonial authority and the colonised.

Transitional arrangements, such as Oslo, when the end result is not spelled out, always favour the stronger party. In Geneva, the Palestinian and Israeli protagonists reversed the formula. They agreed on the basis of the final product (mutual sovereignty and delineated boundaries) and then began to look for the mechanisms to implement it. The agreement's far-reaching positive features lie primarily in re-establishing the land-for-peace formula in a concrete manner and, in significantly breaking the current stalemate, energising the peace camp on both sides.

Since this is a draft of a future peace, it is bound to contain elements that will appear as unjust and excessively conciliatory to both Israelis and Palestinians.

For the Palestinians to accept compensation in lieu of the right of return (except for several tens of thousands) is a painful concession, and can only be assuaged if Israel accepts responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. For Israelis to accept the dismantlement of settlements will be tantamount to waging an internal war against the settlers. It presumes the election of a government with radically different credentials from the present one.

One of the most troubling features in the proposed agreement is its finality. It posits itself as a framework for ending the conflict and for reconciliation. As all colonial conflicts have shown, reconciliation is a slow process that comes much later than the ending of conflict. To impose reconciliation while the wounds of domination are fresh would be contrived and could undermine the agreement itself. Better to leave healing as a consequence of concord than a condition for it.

The Geneva accords, in short, will have to be fought for tooth and nail on both sides, and will require far more international backing than the lukewarm reception they had from the EU and UN. Without concerted support, they will be relegated to the bulging archives of hopeful but failed attempts at bringing the occupation to an end.