Geneva Initiative: Ten Years Later

Geneva Initiative: Ten Years Later

By Nechama Douek, Yediot Aharonot
via Yediot Aharonot (translated by Geneva Initiative staff)
Ten years ago, the left-wing camp united around an agreement, which was supposed to solve once and for all the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Members of Knesset from the right-wing called them traitors, but that didn't stop David Grossman, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and dozens of "Geneva Initiative" activists from continuing the dream. Still today, when peace does not seem in sight, they are still convinced: "No one else has proposed a better alternative than ours.". And now they have a new ambassador, Barak Obama.

Ten years ago, every family in Israel arose to find a pamphlet at their doorstep containing the solution to the oldest conflict in the Middle East. That’s how the initiators were certain to convince the Israeli public that it was the time for peace. A decade has passed and nothing has changed. Rather, things have changed quite a bit – the right-wing has strengthened and now includes a government with Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennet, and peace has been almost removed from the public agenda. Even Shelly Yachimovitch, Labor Party leader, who recently led a brave peace process, has sets on her platform the cashier at the supermarket before focusing on the peace process. What has not changed is the burning belief of the Geneva Initiative, which even today; when the fumes for the next Intifada are wafting in the air, understand that there way is the ultimate solution. Also the historic speech by U.S. President Barak Obama, during his recent visit here, strengthened this faith. 

We met with the architects of that Initiative, sitting there are politicians alongside senior military persons, who have learned that peace is the only solution. Member of Knesset Gen. (ret.) Amram Mitzna, Yossi Beilin, architect of the Initiative and Oslo Accords, Gen. Giora Inbar, former division commander and former commander in Lebanon, Gen. (ret.) Gideon Sheffer, once head of the National Security Council and IDF manpower, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Israela Oron, former deputy head of the National Security Council and the IDF Women's Corps, and Gadi Baltiansky, Director-General of the Geneva Initiative and former Press Secretary for Ehud Barak, when the latter was Prime Minister. 

The Geneva Initiative was born out of negotiations held by individual Israelis, headed by Yossi Beilin and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, with senior Palestinians headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo. The Initiative was launched in Switzerland, with financial support from the local government, with a festive event in Geneva in November 2003, which included hundreds of excited Israelis. 

The Initiative outlines details of a peace agreement on all areas, including the city of Ariel which will not be in Israel, and that Jerusalem will be divided so that the Temple Mount is in the hands of the Palestinians.  The Western Wall will remain in the hands of Israel, and the Initiative states that the holy sites will be overseen by an international force. The Initiative also deals with the right of return of the Palestinians, noting that the Palestinians have the right to aspire to return. It was also determined that a small number will return to Israel to rejoin with family. According to the agreement, the realization will end the conflict and recognize Israel as a Jewish state next to a demilitarized Palestinian state. On paper, it's a perfect solution. But as we know, life is what happens when planning peace agreements. 

The Disengagement from Gaza – Because of us  

Over the years, as the political solution was moving further away, there were many accusing fingers towards the architects of the Oslo Accords, Geneva Initiative and other numerous attempts to find a permanent agreement between us and the Palestinians. The people who accused called them naive, daydreamers, but that did not stop them. The person who has been steadfast the entire time, and still today, is author A. B. Yehoshua, who continues to hang his hopes on the Geneva Initiative. 

“Since 1967, I have repeated the same things, despite what others said – you can reach two-states for two peoples,” he says. “There were senior people from the Israeli military, from industry and from politics, and in front of them were senior Palestinians from the PLO, and the agreement that was born is evidence that you can reach a written agreement, with maps and concrete arrangements.” 

Yehoshua also has a solution for all those settlers who refuse to leave their homes to achieve peace. “I cultivated the idea of a Jewish minority in a Palestinian state,” he says, “I know the problems of uprooting people from their place, and firmly believe that Hebron and Bethlehem are part of our homeland. But there is no solution without returning territory.” 

And what will you tell the settlers?   

“I propose to tell them that those who want to return to Israel will receive compensation. Anyone who wants to stay will live there while keeping their Israeli citizenship, under Palestinian sovereignty. They can vote in the Knesset and the Palestinian Authority, and will work in Israel, if they wish, and will contribute to relations with the Palestinian state, so they will not feel they were in exile and their settlement enterprise was not in vain.”

But why would they agree?  

“Because they realize more and more that there cannot be peace without a solution that allows the settlers the right to choose. There are also benefits for those who stay there – they pay less income tax, because the tax authority is lower, and they do not serve in the army. There is already today Haredi cities in the territories that just grow bigger and bigger.”  

It took awhile for even some of the most prominent proponents of the Initiative to understand its full importance. 

"I remember I came to you, when you were the chairman of the Labor Party and the elections were approaching, and I said 'Take a crazy gamble and put the Geneva Initiative as a platform for the Party, and you didn't accept my offer,' reminds Brig. Gen. (res.) Giora Inbar to Mitzna. 

"I really didn't think it was right at the time," replied Mitzna

"I also remember in the meetings with Yossi Beilin, suggesting that we take the Initiative as a platform in the elections" 

Beilin: "After I came to you [Mitzna] with Amnon-Lipkin Shahak , you didn't reject it." 

Mitzna: "Amnon said to me: 'Listen to what Beilin says. If you take the Initiative, it will be an interesting thing. They were almost on verge of closing all the details of an agreement." 

Beilin: "The truth is that in the government led by Sharon, they didn't want to touch it. Tzipi Livni, who was then the Minister of Absorption, was the only one who asked and received a copy of the agreement."

And How Did Sharon React? 

Mitzna: "On the eve of our departure to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea to meet with Palestinian representatives, Sharon went to the media and attacked us, which gave us huge resonance. Shortly after the disengagement, he gave an interview to the New York Times, and said that he made the withdrawal because of the Initiative. He also feared that it might lead to an agreement that he was not ready for." 

The Disillusioned Militaristic 

“Not only great optimism was in the air. The Geneva Initiative camp suffered a series of insults particularly from the right-wing. “I remember that Shaul Yahalom, from the Mafdal Party, called us traitors,” remembers Inbar. 

“And I remember the article in Yediot Aharonot - on the day that we returned from Geneva where we signed the agreement with the Palestinians - that said 39 percent of the public supports the Geneva Initiative,” says Beilin. 

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Inbar had to become disillusioned from his militarism in order to become a great support of the Initiative. “The turning point for me occurred with the public will to leave Lebanon,” he says. “I understand the philosophy of the conflict. The day I left the army I was interviewed, and Yossi Beilin called me and gave me the draft of the agreement. The frustration among people like me was great at that time.” 

How Great was the Frustration? 

“We asked ourselves:  will we forever live by the sword? So when I was offered to join the Geneva Initiative, I was happy. I remember that my role in joining as a military person didn’t gain much sympathy. But I believed, and I still firmly believe, that not through politics, but through people, you can reach an understanding. I myself went to speak to the settlers. We wanted to talk to the people and convince them.” 

Israela Oron: “When I explain the Initiative, I point out the fact that for me it’s not surprising that we have many senior officers from army. Only those who were there fighting, wounded, lost friends and close family, understand that the only way is a peace agreement.” 

“Israela is right,” Mitzna states,” Military personnel understand the limitations of the use of force.” 

Mitzna who is well acquainted with what goes on in the territories from the days when he served as commander during the first Intifada , feels that the issue of the peace process arose slightly from its stagnation in recent months, largely thanks to his new party – Hatnua. 

“In the elections, no one, except my Party, put the issue on the table,” he says. 

Baltiansky: “When Netanyahu spoke of two nation states, the settlement blocs, with demilitarization, recognition of Israel and an end to the conflict, he actually said – the Geneva Initiative. All of his materials, except division of Jerusalem, are part of our Initiative.”   

One of the major stumbling blocks for the Israeli public is the issue of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and its division. How did you overcome this? 

“We adopted the Clinton parameters that differentiate between the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. The biggest achievement is that most of the public in Israel knows  in general what the final agreement will look like at the end of the day. But most of them also believe that there is no leadership that is able to make it happen.” 

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Israela Oron, who met in the last decade with different audiences that are not supportive of the Initiative, like Shas activists and Avigdor Liberman supporters, came out of those encounters with a rather optimistic outlook. 

“In those meetings, I show them the Initiative, the general parameters, and then they see that the monster is not that bad, and that there is a way to reach a solution. But they do understand that as long as there is no agreement, there will not be quiet.”  

I don’t trust Netanyahu 

When I’m mention to the Geneva Initiative leaders that Yair Lapid said that if the Israeli public would stand firmly against the division of Jerusalem, just like they stand against the right of return that Palestinians, Palestinians will give up their claim, they are enraged. 

“Lapid doesn’t know what he is talking about,” says Beilin. “If we would agree to the right of return, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state, and that’s why the Israeli public is against this. Also the Palestinians understand this. In contrast, in Jerusalem there are 250 thousand Palestinians that we have no interest to include in the future state. There are enormous refugee camps.” 

Gideon Sheffer: “Israel’s security is based on deterrence. Not on the amount of land and territories it holds. Also in Lebanon and Gaza, deterrence is achieved and the same can be achieved if we reach an agreement with the Palestinians.” 

Inbar:  “When I’m being asked whether I trust the Palestinians, I say I don’t. But I also don’t trust Netanyahu. Every agreement is based on interests. We need to rely on the fact that they also have something to lose.” 

Baltiansky: “The Initiative is the solution. When it was published, Olmert was one of its major critics, but after he was elected, he understood that it’s a practical solution.  He adopted chapter by chapter from the agreement, and although he didn’t achieve a formal agreement in the end, it was very close. By the way, from surveys we commissioned, two thirds of public support the content and the principles of the Initiative.” 

Sheffer: “As a matter of fact, there is no other group that presents a better or more comprehensive alternative.”  

If everything is so good and right, why is there no agreement? 

Sheffer:  “There is no agreement because the government doesn’t want one. I was Ehud Barak’s advisor for two years. After his failure and change in government, the will to reach an agreement was diminished.  Despite that, I am saying that it is easier for a right-wing controlled Israel to bring peace if they wish to. In the last elections, I voted for Livni because she is the only one that put forth peace on the political platform. It is possible to reach an agreement and I say so as someone who fought and commanded troops. Ehud Barak planted the seed of the possibility of dividing Jerusalem, and everyone understands that without that, there will be no peace.”  

Obama Has Spoken

The speech by the U.S. President, Barak Obama , during his visit to the country brought renewed optimism. Ten years later, they again believe that we can achieve peace. "For people like me, with the belief in the possibility of co-existence, it gave a sense of optimism," says Inbar. "The world leader spoke clearly. He gave leadership on the way to model and created the conditions for co-existence. You can live here and not by the sword. With unconditional support from world leaders like Obama, our leadership should seize the opportunity and continue forward. I'm a relentless optimist. In every ray of light, I see the sun. If local leadership will join with the global leadership, I will remind the leadership again that there is a prepared model which was also signed by the Palestinians." 

Mitzna: "My interpretation for this visit is that Obama came to soften the public and the Israeli leadership, and to soften the Prime Minister's environment, even if not directly the Prime Minister. Now that he has the public sympathy, I want and hope that the next stage will be more active. I kept reminding Tzipi Livni about the Geneva Initiative, and she found interest and asked for me to be alongside her in the consultations. "

Also A.B. Yehoshua was thrilled about the visit. "The man is inspiring. He seems to be a true friend who wants peace. The question is whether he will be able to operate true influence on the Israeli government. He has now four years in the White House and we hope that what he said in words will translate into action." 

What is going to happen in ten years? 

Mitzna: "There are people, also in the left, who say that the situation is irreversible. I think that reality will impose the Geneva Initiative formula even if we need to do it unilaterally. 

Beilin: "A right-wing leader can reach an agreement without ten years passing. I miss Arafat, who knew who how to make decisions. We missed out when we didn't sign an agreement with him; despite that there is no doubt that he was a problematic leader. Abu Mazen is a rare leader. And we need to take advantage of his time in leadership and reach an agreement, because after there will be no one like him. " 

Sheffer: "In ten years, there may not be two-states, but we will be in a process that will chart the way. The two countries will rise here in thirty years, and after a long process, to my dismay, the reality is the one that will create two-states. 

A.B. Yehoshua, will there be peace in your lifetime? 

"I can't believe it will not happen. When Sadat landed in Israel, I cried from joy because I didn't believe it would happen. When the agreement was signed with Jordan, I was happy. There is no reason why the last chapter will not be closed. I do not give up optimism, because it is the essence of the Zionist movement, which I am advocate for."