Accord Allure

What I think about the Geneva accord is what generations of Jews have thought about getting a doctor’s second opinion: it couldn’t hurt.

I was surprised at how many people this week asked me whether I thought the accord was good for Israel. Surprised, mainly, that they would think an independent peace initiative declared at a press conference in Switzerland could actually doom the Jewish State.

The accord — negotiated over two years in secret talks between Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies and Palestinians with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — were signed with great international fanfare Monday, Dec. 1, in a ceremony in Switzerland emceed by actor Richard Dreyfuss (see story, p. 18).

Although the bulky report goes into substantially more detail than other Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives now circulating, its broad outlines are hardly revolutionary to anyone familiar with the history of American-backed peace efforts in the region.

As worked out by teams led by Israeli opposition leader Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, the accord calls for two neighboring, independent states, each with its capital in Jerusalem; the evacuation of most Jewish settlements; and a limit, set by Israel, on the number of Palestinian refugees who can settle in Israel. Israel would compensate Palestinians in land for the few settlements that would remain, and in money for Palestinians not allowed to return. Palestine would have sovereignty over the Al Aksa Mosque and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but not pray there. Israel would have sovereignty over the Western Wall, and an international force would oversee the whole area.

As ideas for a future accord, these aren’t bad, and they certainly aren’t final. But supporters of the accord should temper their enthusiasm. While Palestinian negotiators received the tacit support of Arafat, his waffling in the days leading up to the ceremony should remind everyone that this is a man, to paraphrase former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, far more comfortable with the rhetoric of revolution than the reality of state building. There is little reason to think he won’t undermine the promise of Geneva as he did Oslo.

Opponents to the accord, on the other hand, should weigh their concerns against the status quo: the hundreds of innocent Israelis lost to violence, the country’s economic slide, the cost of doing more of the same. These costs become even more inexplicable when you take into account the fact that Sharon has already committed to the inevitability of a Palestinian state.

The accord, like a handful of similar initiatives, is the result of a leadership vacuum. No serious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have taken place since the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Meanwhile, 910 Israelis have been killed.

Sharon seems to be following the strategy of former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: don’t do anything until you’re absolutely forced to.

The security fence his government is now building between Israel and the Palestinian territories is a prime example. Facing strong opposition from the right, he dithered for months until a strong centrist grass-roots voice forced his hand. Now the fence is going up, going left, right or straight across the 1967 borders, depending on who is pushing Sharon harder: the American government, the Israeli right or the Israeli center.

The Geneva accord is also, to some extent, forcing Sharon’s hand. The fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell has defied some powerful (and powerfully misguided) pro-Israel activists in meeting with accord negotiators is a sign that it is time for Sharon to take some action.

"If Sharon is going to step away from Shamir’s strategy it will make history," an Israeli official told me. "If not we’re in deep s–." There is good reason to believe that Sharon will make some moves. Even Sharon’s opponents do not view him as an ideologue. He is a former general committed to Israel’s strategic security, and a politician with a keen sense of the Israeli center. At the end of the day, it will be these forces that push him toward action.

That is why a more important date in Israel’s history may turn out to be not Dec. 1, but Dec. 18. That’s when Sharon will go before a party economic convention and speak — some analysts say — of unilateral moves his government will take toward alleviating the Palestinian crisis. The moves may include withdrawal from some of the more remote settlements and other overtures in the Palestinian direction. They will convince some Palestinians that movement is possible, and the American administration that the path to peace is not road blocked in Jerusalem.