Assessing the Geneva Accord

On to Part II

Based on a talk given at a panel entitled "THE WALL: APARTHEID & RESISTANCE IN ISRAEL-PALESTINE" (featuring Jackie Hogue, Shehnaz Hozaima, and Paul Burrows) at Mondragon Bookstore & Coffee House in Winnipeg (Saturday, December 13th, 2003)

Each time I give a talk that relates in some way to human rights and social justice, I find myself in an internal debate over how to approach the topic, not just in terms of framing the issues themselves, but also in terms of language, in terms of intensity, in terms of expressing emotion, and anger, and indignation. We're taught not to get emotional about certain things, especially "politics," and certainly not dry, 50-page documents like the Geneva Accord, as if our anger and sadness and tears, as if the cracking of our voice, as if the anxiety and adrenalin that makes our stomachs turn and bodies shake, will somehow discredit our perspective, will reveal us to be less than objective, less than balanced, less than level-headed.

But for me, it's always been, at least partly, a tactical consideration: How does one most effectively engage the audience? How does one inspire people to listen, let alone act? How does one get people to give a flying fuck, especially when even those of us on the Left (and I include myself in this at times) often seem more interested in going to the pub for a drink, than worrying about the realities of domestic poverty, or Western imperialism, or state terrorism, and human rights violations?

I'm supposed to talk tonight about the provisions of the recent Geneva Accord, or G.A., and offer some kind of analysis of its merits or demerits. But it's hard to do that in a void. It's hard to do that without reference to the facts on the ground, right now, inside Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. And it's hard to relay these facts in the "proper" dispassionate manner that we expect from "respectable" panelists. But let's be serious: Should we really be dispassionate about military occupation, settler pogroms, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing!?! Should we really be dispassionate when we talk about the latest journalist, UN worker, International Solidarity Movement volunteer, or Palestinian school-kid shot in the head by an Israeli military sniper? What about the latest incident of a Palestinian family crushed to death in their own home, as it gets demolished to make room for the 600 kilometer "separation wall" that Jackie [Hogue] has just detailed, or because their home is too close to an illegal, Jewish-only colony, or simply because collective punishment is a routine part of Israel's military occupation?

Of course, I may get accused later on of hyperbole, or bias, for my choice of adjectives and words. I certainly hope we don't hear the obligatory, much-abused, and ridiculous charge of "anti-Semitism" that has become all too common at events like this, for even suggesting that Zionism's "national liberation" project and Israel's "purity of arms" is more accurately described as a blood-soaked and all-too-typical form of European colonialism. So, before we get to the actual provisions and analysis of this latest so-called "peace proposal," let's talk about some undisputed facts. Does anyone here even know how many Palestinians have been killed since the Geneva Accord was first drafted and unveiled in mid-October? The last suicide bombing attack against Israeli civilians was on October 4th, when 19 people were brutally killed in a Haifa restaurant. Since then, we've had what the media likes to call a "period of calm," so you and I might be excused for thinking that no one had died in the last two and a half months on either side.

In reality, almost one hundred Palestinians have been killed since October 4th – mostly civilians – including almost 20 children.  If we had a media and government that were even remotely interested in reporting the facts on the ground, and if we had a media that was remotely concerned about balance, then we would know some of the names of these one hundred dead.  We would have seen a story or two about the hobbies, and dreams, and aspirations of the children that the media sometimes characterizes as “collateral damage.”  We would have seen interviews with their grieving parents.  We would know, for example, the name of Bashir Mohammed Ahmed 'Owais, a 27 year old man from Balata refugee camp (outside Nablus), who died while in Israeli military custody this past Monday (December 8th), following reports of torture and medical negligence.  Or we would know something about the life of 20-year old student Kamleh al-Shuli, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers this very morning as she was on her way to al-Najah University in Nablus.  The media rightly gives us these kinds of personal, humanizing stories when Israeli civilians are killed.  But it is extremely rare, at least in the Canadian and U.S. media, to get the same standards and treatment of Palestinian victims, the same empathy and concern shown for their next of kin.

This ongoing repression and violence against ordinary Palestinians ought to be an essential part of our understanding of the context behind the Geneva Accords.  And there are other “facts on the ground” which ought to help us judge the prospects for meaningful peace in the current climate.  Since the great fanfare of the drafting of the “Geneva Accord” in mid-October, Israel has begun building yet another Jewish-only “settlement” (or colony) –– outside its borders –– in the midst of the Palestinian neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber near Jerusalem.  It’s being called “Nof Zahav” (or Golden Landscape in Hebrew … how nice, eh?), and it’s inside the Palestinian West Bank, part of an ongoing plan to complete a ring of Jewish colonies around Arab East Jerusalem – in effect, and combined with the wall that we've just heard about, cutting the centre of Palestinian economic, political, religious, and cultural life, cutting it off from the rest of the population, and making the whole concept of a viable Palestinian state into an increasingly bad joke.

Having said all this, we have before us this much-vaunted, much-publicized “peace proposal” called the Geneva Accord.  (Just as an aside, we have to remember that whenever we hear the term "peace process" or "peace proposal," this is a technical term that means its exact opposite, it's a technical term for whatever Western (including Israeli) elites happen to be pursuing at the moment.)  Anyway, the opening preamble of the accord affirms the lofty goal of “[living] in peaceful coexistence, mutual dignity and security based on a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace.”  Sounds wonderful, right?  So we should hope that it’s true.  We should want it to be true.  We should look into it, and find out the facts, and if it seems plausible and genuine, we should lend our support … not to mention, throw a party! 

But how does one assess such a proposal?  And shouldn’t we be extra-skeptical given the sheer number of “peace proposals” and “agreements” that have surfaced over the last thirty years, only to end in new explosions of violence?  Need I remind everyone of the previous hallucinations of everlasting peace and prosperity: from Oslo, to Camp David, from Taba to the Road Map, and don’t forget the Mitchell, and Rogers, and Tenet plans, each one announced with great fanfare about the dawn of a new era?  
Shouldn’t we also be skeptical, given the histories of the Geneva document’s authors?  The principal Israeli architect of the G.A. is Yossi Beilin, the prime mover behind the secret talks that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993.  He's also one half of the dynamic duo that came up with the Beilin-Abu Mazen proposal in October 1995 (which later formed the basis for Barak’s proposals at Camp David), and he was also a negotiator at the Taba talks in January 2001.  According to Israeli scholar Tanya Reinhart, the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan was “a shameful document that [left] all the settlements untouched,” and Barak’s Camp David proposal “was just a worsened version” of the earlier plan – characterized by manipulative language and a conscious attempt to keep the details from the Palestinian people themselves.  Other Israeli participants in the G.A. include Amram Mitzna, former Labor Party leader, as well as Amos Oz, the “dovish” novelist turned beacon of Israeli self-righteousness.

Of course, the principal Palestinian architect of the G.A. is no better.  Yasser Abed Rabbo is a career PA figure, and was the Minister of Culture and Information between 1994 and 2001.  He’s now being touted as a leading light of Palestine, the elusive “partner for peace” that Israelis have long lamented did not exist, and he’s busy touring Europe and the U.S. with much acclaim, and getting published in the New York Times about the trials and tribulations of working for peace.  In a Ha’aretz commentary (dated October 16th), Rabbo’s new buddy Mitzna asserted that the Palestinian negotiators of the G.A. represented “an authentic, broad, Palestinian leadership that enjoys the support both from the official Palestinian Authority leadership and from the activist leaders at street level.”  Why the sudden praise for a long-time PA functionary, from a quasi-state institution that Israel has often described as “terrorist?”   And is it even true?  In what sense can Rabbo be praised as an authentic and popular Palestinian leader?

It seems clear to me from reading the text of the Geneva Accord that Rabbo and the other Palestinian negotiators are being praised precisely for abandoning the historical pillars of Palestinian national liberation, and for abandoning the very clear affirmations of Palestinian collective and individual rights spelled out in international law, including but not limited to UNGA resolution 194, and UNSC resolutions 242 and 338.  Rabbo is actually willing to sign his name to a document that forfeits the Palestinian Right of Return (affirmed in Resolution 194).  According to Mitzna’s Ha’aretz piece, this was the key point: “They gave up the right of return to the state of Israel, and a solid, stable Jewish majority was guaranteed.”    Well, as we will see, that’s not the only thing Rabbo and similar PA cronies (including Arafat) are willing to concede “on behalf” of their people.  But what has been the Palestinian response?  How authentic and popular are the Geneva architects, and the provisions themselves?

Virtually every major Palestinian grassroots leader, intellectual, activist, as well as Palestinian human rights and solidarity group, inside Israel-Palestine (as well as throughout the diaspora) has come out against the Geneva Accord.  The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has attacked the G.A., as well as Switzerland itself for hosting and supporting the negotiations – the latter due to Switzerland being a High Contracting Party to the Fourth Geneva Convention.  The PCHR maintains that the new Geneva Accord “legitimizes Israel’s colonization and confiscation of Palestinian territory,” rescinds the inherent human right of return of 5 million refugees, and is in breach of a range of Geneva Conventions, such as those prohibiting population transfer into occupied territory (Article 49, Paragraph 6), which is defined as a “war crime” under Additional Protocol 1, Article 85 (4)(a).

Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, thousands of Palestinians from a range of backgrounds, political, and religious perspectives, have taken to the streets in protest to denounce the G.A, calling the Palestinian signatories “traitors.”  Contrary to Beilin & Rabbo’s New York Times article, Palestinians who oppose the G.A. are not confined to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  Khalid Amayreh, a Palestinian journalist living in Hebron, has documented just some of this opposition, in an article called “Geneva Dissension.”  Key PLO figures are against it … like Abdullah Al-Hourani (head of the PLO Refugees Dept.) who has said: “Let it be known that those participating in the ‘Geneva party’ don’t represent us.”  Fatah official Asa’ad Abu Sharkh called the signatories of the accord “a handful of pigs” … which is, apparently, a more serious insult in Palestine than it is here.  Palestinian activists in Rafah tried to block the Palestinian delegation to Geneva from leaving Gaza, shouting “No to Treason!”  At a conference at Al-Najah University in Nablus, Palestine National Council member Taysir Nasrallah called the G.A. a “treasonous document” and warned the PLO leadership that it would lose all legitimacy “the moment it chooses to forsake the right of return.”   Palestinian Member of Knesset Azmi Bishara has also denounced the accord.  The list is endless, and I haven't even mentioned the views of the vast majority of Palestinian commentators and organizations (like Al-Awda) scattered across the diaspora, where thee majority of Palestinians actually live, and where support for the Right of Return is nearly universal. 

So how do we actually assess the worth of the Geneva Accord?  In addition to talking about the actual facts on the ground, and taking note of the ongoing process of colonization, annexation, and repression that is "the occupation" – all of which went on “as normal” when many of the “dovish” signatories and supporters of this new accord were actually inside the Israeli government, a point which can't be emphasized enough.  In addition to this, and the fact that the rhetoric of new “peace proposals” has never matched the actual policies pursued by both the Israeli and Palestinian elites – we need to keep in mind a few things.

First, is the question of symmetry.  Like all previous “peace proposals” over the last ten years, the latest Geneva Accord must be understood first and foremost in terms of the asymmetry of power between the two sides, and the fact that the United States consistently backs Israel, politically, economically, and militarily (to the tune of $3 billion per year).  Anyone with any illusions about “parity” between Israel and the PA, or about Israel’s “vulnerability,” or about the alleged U.S. commitment to peace in the region, let alone its “neutrality” –– need only read Naseer Aruri’s latest book “Dishonest Broker,” to come to grips with the fundamental asymmetry of the conflict.  The flood of “peace proposals” over the last ten years, and their repeated failure, must be understood in this unequal context –– a context which allowed Amos Oz to praise Oslo as “the second greatest victory of Zionism” (after the creation of the State of Israel in the first place), even while Edward Said condemned it as a complete and utter “capitulation,” a “Palestinian Versailles.” 

Second, is the fact that the Geneva Accord is not even an official proposal.  Given the attention it's been afforded, you'd think it was.  Imagine the amount of media attention that would have been given a different proposal, drafted by a different set of "private citizens" … imagine, say, a bunch of progressive Israelis and dissidents like Tanya Reinhart, Ilan Pappé, Uri Avnery, Amira Hass, Gila Svirsky, and Hell, throw in Netanyahu's refusenik nephew just for kicks, imagine they got together with some Palestinians like Azmi Bishara, Mustapha Barghouti, Hanan Ashrawi, some of the Palestinian coordinators of the ISM, with some consultation from prominent Palestinians in the diaspora like Ali Abunimah … or the late Edward Said.  Just imagine, just bear with me for a minute, if this group of "private citizens" got together to draft a "peace proposal!"  Imagine the mainstream media coverage.  Would it be greater than zero?  Would Bill Clinton jump on a plane to Switzerland to endorse the effort?  Of course, you all know the answer.  And you all probably know which "peace proposal" might actually stand a chance of envisioning and articulating a meaningful, just, and lasting peace … but I digress.

As I was saying, the Geneva Accord is not official.  This isn't a reason to reject it per se, but it must be kept in mind that Ariel Sharon has rejected it as “the greatest mistake since Oslo” (which he also opposed), and even the Labor Party has failed to formally endorse the plan, despite the distinguished Labor Party histories of the Geneva Accord’s Israeli authors, despite their status.  Even Ehud Barak has opposed the G.A. as being “too generous” to Palestinians, which should put the lie to his mythical “generous offer” at Camp David.  The important point in all this, is that the Palestinian Authority (including Arafat) has stated that the Geneva Accord is a “positive” development, in marked contrast to the rest of the Palestinian population, while the Israeli government has attacked the proposal.  This means that Palestinian concessions in this “un-official” document (regarding settlements, Jerusalem, Right of Return, and so on) will likely become the starting point for future negotiations.  Israel will be able to say "You already gave up Right of Return, you already conceded Israeli dominion over East Jerusalem," Arafat called the G.A. “positive,” and so on.  But at the same time, you can bet your ass the Israeli state will not consider itself bound to something drafted by private citizens, however illustrious they might be.  Let's be serious, Israeli elites never consider themselves bound to agreements and treaties, even ones that they've officially endorsed and signed.  The only constraint they’ve ever recognized, going back to Ben-Gurion, has been “What can we get away with?”

On to Part II

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