Let's Play Prime Ministers

Hani Shukrallah

The young man singing on the stage in the Geneva auditorium could easily have been Egyptian. His face would not have been out of place on the streets of Cairo, yet his name was Aviv Geffen and he was singing in Hebrew. The sound was wonderful, the song was for peace and the audience was made up of a few hundred Palestinians and Israelis, men and women of all ages gathered in this lovely Swiss city to proclaim their common commitment to peace and brotherhood. I should have been moved. I wasn’t.

The rhetoric was overflowing with noble sentiments and virtuous purpose. The ceremony was perfectly choreographed, with American actor Richard Dreyfus, an archetype of the liberal Jew if ever there was one, acting as a highly congenial MC. In big bold letters to the left and right of the stage the parties to the agreement defiantly declared: “There is a partner; there is a plan.” And, in a clear departure from Palestinian-Israeli negotiating traditions, the two sides were represented by two good-looking and articulate leaders, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Yossi Beilin, who concluded the ceremony with emotive and well presented speeches, and with hands held high in solidarity and brotherhood.

With the help of powerful opinion-makers in the USA and Europe, Rabbo and Beilin would have the Geneva Accords imposed on Palestinians

With the help of powerful opinion-makers in the USA and Europe, Rabbo and Beilin would have the Geneva Accords imposed on Palestinians

Yet the whole spectacle failed to convince, producing a sense not so much of falseness as of unreality.

Before arriving in Geneva on what turned out to be a frantic day trip during which I attended, along with a small Egyptian group led by Presidential Advisor Ossama El-Baz, the ceremony launching the much celebrated, much maligned Geneva Accord, I had read the text of the agreement. It may have been realistic; it may have been the best possible deal “under the circumstances”; yet it was definitely not the stuff dreams of a bright and peaceful future are made of.

For one thing it was candidly iniquitous. In its most rudimentary sense, equity implies formal, legalistic equality, the kind of legal equality shared by a male millionaire with a PhD from an Ivy League university and an illiterate peasant woman, at least in terms of their voting rights, or freedom to stand for public office. Yet even on this crude level the Geneva Accord makes no pretence of providing equality between the two states, Jewish and Palestinian, stipulated and mutually recognised in the agreement.

Take the least contentious of this and all other proposals for a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians—the question of arms. It is almost everywhere taken for granted that the fledgling Palestinian state must be demilitarised while Israel remains in possession of one of the most advanced military machines in the world—including some two hundred nuclear bombs and God knows what kind of stockpile of biological and chemical weapons.

That there is no question whatsoever of any future Palestinian state achieving military parity with Israel is not an issue. Nor do I believe that it is at all desirable for any such state ever to attempt to do so. Yet to stipulate that Israel enjoys rights which are denied the Palestinian state in a formal, and not just in a substantive sense, is to acknowledge that the Israeli state should enjoy an intrinsically more elevated legal status than its Palestinian counterpart, and that it should do so in perpetuity.

Such implications run throughout a document within which the imperatives of realpolitik, the language of power, constantly undermine the rhetorical stabs at brotherhood and equality. And there’s the rub. My sense of unreality was not motivated by the iniquities of the Geneva document as much as by the fact that it was being issued by the “civil societies” of Israel and Palestine. The whole document was a much trailed “virtual” peace treaty and both Beilin and Abed Rabbo have been at pains to explain that they “only want to show that a peace agreement is possible”, as Beilin put it.

Which served simply to extend any sense of unreality to encompass Palestinian and Arab reactions to Geneva as well. What’s all the fuss about? After two years of intensive discussions Abed Rabbo, Beilin and their respective teams could have given us a much needed document setting out the principles on which a truly equitable peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians might be founded. This, after all, is the job of intellectuals and civil society organisations. Instead they played prime ministers and gave us a virtual peace treaty. The worst that could be said about it is that the concessions made by Abed Rabbo should be taken considerably more seriously than those made by Beilin since the Palestinian delegation was actually more official than “civil”. Beilin’s Meretz group, after all, stands next to zero chance of getting its way, even under a Labour government.

The real question, however, is that both the Geneva document, and much more seriously, the failed “factions talks” in Cairo this week, bring into sharp focus something which both the Oslo process and the Intifada have managed to keep hidden for so long, and this is the profound crisis afflicting Palestinian strategy. In last week’s issue of Al-Ahram Weekly Graham Usher astutely observed that the dissension among Palestinians over the Geneva Accord’s stipulations vis-?-vis the right of return actually betray an ambiguity at the heart of Palestinian strategy since under a two-state solution it might be assumed that Palestinians would want to return to a Palestinian and not a Jewish state.

This is just one, albeit major, aspect of the strategic choices Palestinian political forces have so far preferred to avoid. They can no longer do so. If the Geneva exercise has served any purpose at all it is to reveal what has been from a Palestinian perspective the “best-case scenario” of the peace process launched in Madrid a decade ago. And that, by implication, is enough to tell us that the best we can now expect from that “peace process” is considerably less than the accord reached with a fringe group within Israeli “civil society”.

Published Friday, December 12th, 2003 - 12:11pm GMT

Article courtesy of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly

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Hani Shukrallah

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