Yossi Beilin Interview (2003): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Searching for Peace in the Middle East: Conversation with Yossi Beilin, Former Minister of Justice, Israel; November 3, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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The Geneva Accords

Talk now a little about the informal processes that start the peace process again. I know that in the making of Oslo, you were a key figure. You were one of the first people talking to Palestinians on the other side. And, again, we see that phenomenon, that we were at a standstill in the peace process, and in the last couple of months, Israelis on one side and Palestinians on the other began talking informally. Tell us a little about the dynamic of that process. What leads you to each other, so to speak?

We never stopped talking to each other. It is not a couple of months, it is three years. Immediately after the end of the Taba negotiations, that was January, 2001, Yasser Abed Rabbo, who was then the Minister of Culture and Information, and myself, the Minister of Justice, talked about the situation. Our belief was that had we had more time and better circumstances, we could have concluded the job and had an agreement.

We decided, after the defeat of Prime Minister Barak to the new Prime Minister Sharon, that we would dedicate our efforts in order to try, on a private basis, to conclude the job, first and foremost to prove to ourselves that a solution is possible. Since then, we have worked at the beginning in a very modest way with a few people. Then we enlarged the coalitions on each side. We hired experts; we prepared maps. It was a kind of a simulation. We decided to do two things: first of all, to get to the details. Our belief is that God is in the details; not the devil. Because people don't believe that it is possible to have a detailed agreement anymore, that there is a solution for the refugee problem, that there is a solution for the Jerusalem problem. If you prove that there is such a solution, they might change their minds. I'm speaking about the peace camps, about the skeptical people, not necessarily about the extreme doves and the hawks, and the extreme right on both sides.

The second thing was to sign a commitment, because in the past, no signatures were taken and were given. The feeling that you are signing and you are giving something of yourself, you dedicate something, you are giving up on something but you get more, was very important for us. So we signed on a cover letter, not on the agreement itself, because the agreement will be between the government of Israel and the PLO, and we are not representing them today. But we signed on a cover letter, which was sent to the Swiss Foreign Minister, depositing the agreement itself and committing ourselves to the draft of the agreement. By that, I believe that we proved to many -- not to those who don't want to believe, but those who wanted to believe and couldn't anymore -- that there is a partner, that there is a plan, that if we are courageous enough and if we are ready to pay the price, here there is a moment. The governments, at the moment of truth, will have to decide whether they want to use it as a basis, whether they want to change it. But there is one thing that they cannot take from us, that it is feasible.

How did this process fit into the agreements, the negotiations that had gone before? As we talk now about these Geneva Accords, which I think is the label that's given, do they incorporate the Taba Accords, the Clinton parameters? Where do they differ in very important respects?

Our secret is that we never invented the wheel. We are continuing a path which began with the Rogers plan in '69. What did Rogers say, the secretary of state, then? That the solution will be between Israel and Palestine, with minor modifications of the '67 borders. This was the idea, this has been the idea all the years. This was the Reagan plan, and then it was the Clinton plan, and the Shultz plan, in a way. Eventually what we did was implemented the last phase of the Oslo process. The Oslo process spoke about five years of an interim solution with the Palestinian Authority conducive to a permanent solution at the end of the period. The end of the period was May 4, 1999. We never had an agreement then. The second date was extended to September 13, 2000; even then there was no agreement.

Now, there is no new date. What we are saying is, "Here is, actually, the permanent solution that we needed." It is the continuation of Taba. It is based on the ideas of Clinton, which were the most developed ideas and the most detailed ideas ever suggested to both parties. And this is also the third part of the road map. The road map is the legitimate son of the Bush vision from June 24, 2002. The road map was offered to the parties at the beginning of 2003. The road map speaks about three steps: the first is confidence-building measures, the second is a Palestinian state with provisional borders, and the third is a permanent solution, which will deal with refugees and security in Jerusalem and all these things. This should be implemented by 2005, which means almost yesterday. So we are coming with a third phase. We are not contradicting, of course, the first phases. But that should be a model for the third phase.

If one is serious about implementation of the road map, one has to be prepared with a permanent solution already, or at least talk about it. Now, nothing is taking place, nothing is going on about the permanent solution. This why I believe that what we are doing may revive the road map, which has weakened in the last months.

To find a solution to this problem, it seems that you have to build a coalition for peace. That has not happened. So let's talk about the elements that are required, politically, to make the Geneva Accords, or some version of them, or a continuation of the process, actually happen. What has to happen on the Israeli side?

First of all, we gathered twenty-five signatories. The people are from the Likud, from the Shinui Party, from the Labour Party, from my Meretz Party. There are people from the defense establishment, the former chief of staff, lieutenant generals, major generals, brigadier generals and colonels. There are authors like Amos Oz, like Alev Bet Joshua. This is a very, very strong coalition, which cannot be dismissed. Some days after the publication of this agreement, there were public opinion polls, and we got 39 percent of support. This is not marginal. If you begin such a campaign with almost 40 percent of support, and with such a coalition, I believe that moving from this number to 51 percent is not impossible. I'm not saying that we have it, but it's not impossible.

What we need, what we are going to do, and this is something which is a mirror image, we are going to do it in a parallel way with Palestinians. We are now beginning an organization which will deal only with the agreement. It will be called, "Yes to an Agreement." Meaning that our agreement is not the Bible, neither the Koran. It is a model. But what is important is that more and more people will understand and believe that an agreement is very important, and also feasible. We will send it to every household in Israel on the 16th of November. So everybody in Israel will have it, with the maps, with explanations, with the cover letter, and will know exactly what we mean.

On the 20th of November, we will launch the process in Geneva. I hope that it will be a significant event, memorialized by the people on both sides, and important enough in their view. Then we will have conferences and debates between Israelis and Palestinians, with experts from abroad on the different aspects of this agreement. We are not the wisest on earth, and I'm sure that there are people who may have better ideas, and we would like to learn from them. So it will be an ongoing process, in order to educate the public opinion towards such an agreement, and influence the governments to resume the negotiations of the permanent solution and go this way or another, as long as they are going to have a permanent solution, which is vital for both peoples.

It would seem that as part of this process, a key would have to be activating the outsiders. Here I have in mind the United States' foreign policy establishment, or the Bush administration right now; the Arab states, it would seem, would be very important in this process at some point; and, finally, the supporters of Israel in the United States, the American Jewish community. How will you do that? And are you sanguine about those possibilities?

We are going to send to the world, delegations of the signatories -- Israelis and Palestinians -- to explain what we have done to the world. We have already been to Jordan and to Egypt. We will be, hopefully next week, in Morocco, invited by the king who would like very much to have influence on other moderate Arab countries. Maybe it will be difficult for Israelis to go there, so the Palestinians will go there alone. In a few weeks, we will come with these two delegations to the United States. And we will meet with the Jewish constituency, the Palestinian constituency, experts, people on the Hill, people in the administration, and the media to explain, again, what we are doing and what we are expecting from the world and from the Americans. I believe that this is the only way to promote it, just to talk to people, to explain that we are not replacing any government, that we are people who believe in peace. We are not naïve. We are not dreamers. We are people who are coming from the heart of our societies and we understand that the business-as-usual option doesn't exist for us.

You believe that Israel has to find a solution because it's sitting on a demographic time bomb. Why that is so?

There are at least two aspects to our efforts. One is, of course, to end the violence. We believe that one of the main ways to end the violence is to end occupation over the West Bank in Gaza. We found ourselves thirty-six years ago in a very difficult situation. The war was imposed on us, but our biggest mistake was, then, not to decide upon our own border unilaterally and withdraw from the rest.

There is also another point, and this is the point of a Jewish democratic state. If there is a Palestinian majority under the control of Israel, then Israel won't be Jewish and democratic. It might be Jewish for a while but not democratic. And, eventually, it won't be Jewish, too. It might be democratic, but then there won't be a Jewish majority. So the whole idea of Israel as a state with a Jewish majority will not exist anymore. What have we done?

So those of us, like myself, who believe that a Jewish majority is very important, that it is important that there will be a Jewish state in this world, and that it is vital that this state will be democratic and will be a state of the Jewish people, but also a state for all its citizens, for us the issue of not being in control in a majority of Palestinians is vital. This question is not a theoretical one. It is a matter of a few years until there is a Palestinian majority to the west of Jordan River. And this is why there is a vital and urgent need for us to find a solution as Zionists.

Do your opponents in Israel, that is, the people who don't see this reality, do they not understand the South African analogy, or if they do, they don't care?

I'm sure that I would be the worst person to represent their view. I can imagine that they would choose somebody else to express it. So I would not like to distort it. I would say only one thing. There are people who are really to the extreme right. They don't believe in human rights. Regretfully, they exist also in my country, but they're a small minority, and I don't refer to them. I will never be able to convince them. I'm speaking about the others, about Likud voters. Twenty percent of them supported our agreement. So I'm asking myself about the other eighty percent. What is their alternative? They understand that transferring all the Arabs from the land of Israel or Palestine is crazy. Are they waiting for a miracle? Do they believe a million Jews will now emigrate from the United States to Israel and change the demographic balance?

I believe that they don't have an answer. I believe that they don't have an alternative to what we suggest, because there are actually only two options, in my view. One is to have an agreed upon border as part of a general agreement, and another is to withdraw unilaterally, and to decide upon our own border. If you don't do either a unilateral or an agreement, you are left with an abyss.

The problem is that it is difficult for people to think even about the next six years. Many of them, regretfully, think only about tomorrow. It is the role of the leadership to tell them, "Hey, look there. See exactly, in a very lucid way, what might happen to you if we do nothing." I believe that the public opinion in Israel is our biggest asset. This was the public opinion which convinced the government of Israel to withdraw from Lebanon. This was the public opinion which supported the Oslo agreement. And this was the public opinion which was ready to support an agreement after the King David summit in July 2000, had this summit concluded successfully.

For somebody viewing this from afar, it seems that there is a gridlock in the Israeli system, so that what appears to be one thing becomes something else. What I have in mind here, in the first instance, is the fence, which started as a reasonable statement of trying to separate the two peoples so that the suicide bombers could not come across the border, but seems to have become a juggernaut for bringing more territory under Israel's control, and more settlements. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes. I agree with you one hundred percent. The original idea of a fence came from the left, many people from the left who said, "If you don't have an agreement, if you don't trust the partner, okay, let us withdraw unilaterally." Eventually, the fence now is dividing between Israelis, the settlers who live on the West Bank and the Israelis who went to the west side of it. What are we going to do? Are we going to the fence only part of our citizens against the others? The wall became something which is very bizarre. It is neither hawkish nor dovish. It is very, very expensive. And I don't believe that it is going to give us a safe haven.

I'm not a pacifist. I understand that even if we have a peace agreement, it doesn't mean that we will have a quiet situation by a hundred percent. But I do believe that if we have peace, which will be perceived by both sides as a first solution, then the level of violence will drop drastically. Such a wall may just endanger us more, and irritate the other side, and create for them a vision of people who want to take their land and things like this. It is contrary to the original idea of building the wall and saying, "This is our state, this is our border; we are waiting for a better partner to appear, and until then, we will live as good neighbors or bad neighbors with the fence between us." [Today] this is not the case.

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