An end run for peace

October 16, 2003|By Helen Schary Motro

KFAR SHMARIYAHU, Israel - Powerlessness and frustration overwhelm millions of Israelis and Palestinians - powerlessness to halt death and frustration when they see their respective leaders stray from resolving their decades-old conflict.

They feel stymied by endless Israeli party politics, power struggles within the Palestinian Authority and the thus far ineffectual efforts of the United States to achieve a viable diplomatic breakthrough. Many believe the leaders themselves stand in the way of a mass desire for peace. The seeming intransigence - or paralysis - of those in power has made resignation a dominant way of life.

Hope has burst into view. Taking the bull by its horns, notable Israeli and Palestinian personalities have bypassed their leaders, met over the weekend in Jordan and hammered out a 50-page draft agreement to end the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The so-called Geneva Accords cover the hardest stumbling blocks to peace, even those dealing with such major issues as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, which the 1993 Oslo agreement postponed for later resolution. Aiming to forge "two states for two peoples," the plan draws boundaries and swaps land in an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza and the majority of the West Bank, divides sovereignty in Jerusalem and scuttles Palestinian claims for a right to return to Israel.

On the Israeli side, the plan was negotiated by members of the Knesset, or parliament, and members of the Labor Party's inner circle who are outside the power base of Israeli politics. They include former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin; Amram Mitzna, the candidate for prime minister who lost the previous election to Ariel Sharon; and internationally known author Amos Oz. The Palestinians are led by former Palestinian Authority ministers such as Yasser Abed Rabbo and leaders of the powerful Tanzim organization.

The proposal is set to be signed in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 4 - a date heavy with symbolism. It marks the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which many feel tolled the death knell to the peace process. The document will be circulated for signatures among ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. A pledge has been made to send it to every household in Israel. If there will be a major grass-roots response, the respective governments may be unable to ignore the outpouring of the people.

Yet since the announcement of the draft agreement, the Israeli media have been filled with a chorus of criticism and a wall of silence by influential private individuals.

Mr. Sharon's Likud government is furious, claiming that private individuals with no electoral or legislative mandate have no business negotiating on behalf of the state. Former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who unsuccessfully tried to reach agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, and whose administration was brought down by the outbreak of the intifada, maintained the draft accord "clearly harms the interests of the state of Israel."

Most conspicuous in his silence is elder statesman Shimon Peres, considered the generation's would-be architect of peace.

This is not the first grass-roots gesture between Israelis and Palestinians. It somewhat parallels the document jointly drawn up by Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli navy and of the security services. That declaration, too, although less specific in details, is meant to be signed by private citizens in the hope of pressuring their governments.

Israelis in power may object to the content of specific clauses, but it seems incredible that at this bloody stage of the conflict they could oppose the concept of a draft peace agreement that addresses the core issues. Perhaps they are envious that they couldn't or wouldn't initiate it themselves or that others have succeeded where they continue to fail.

October in the Middle East is glorious. The heat has lost its ferocity and the sun shines benignly on a sparkling cobalt sea. But somber reality continues to beat on already overwrought nerves.

As Israeli and Palestinian leaders bicker among themselves, pictures of grief, shock and mayhem still plaster the front pages of the newspapers. Now out of the blue comes a lifeline. It may not be peace on a silver platter, but it is at least a first course. The question is whether the Palestinians and Israelis are hungry enough to taste.

Helen Schary Motro, an American, teaches at the Tel Aviv University School of Law.

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