Geneva cannot be Oslo

Only weeks after two teams of Israeli and Palestinian politicians penned their initials to the so-called Geneva Accord, the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict was inundated by other initiatives. Suddenly the field of battle has been transformed into a verbal tournament. There was the Ayalon-Nusseibeh petition, reported to have obtained thousands of signatures from Palestinians and Israelis alike. Then, within a single week, there were three new "initiatives". The Shinui Party, a partner in the ruling coalition in Israel, announced a platform that contained "a new vision for a settlement". Prime Minister Ariel Sharon soon after announced that he was in the process of formulating "new political ideas" for a settlement. Finally, the Labour Party announced that a committee headed by former Interior Minister Haim Ramon had completed a "peace plan" for a permanent solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Nor was the phenomenon confined to spontaneous contributions on the part of Palestinians or Israelis. Third parties entered the fray and arranged a series of "seminars" — the sobriquet for a special kind of negotiating process bringing together Palestinian and Israeli officials or persons close to decision-making circles, in addition to former US and European officials. Of this ilk was the "Rabin Peace Forum" in Ditchley Park on the outskirts of Oxford. The Palestinian and Israeli delegations that participated in this "working seminar", as it was billed, were headed respectively by Jabril Al-Rajoub, national security advisor to President Arafat and by Omri Sharon, son of the Israeli prime minister and himself a Knesset member. It was also noteworthy that Jonathan Powell, the British prime minister’s chief of staff, met with these two delegation heads before they sat down to official talks, which were attended by numerous British and foreign figures.

In tandem with the "forum" in Ditchley Park was another taking place in Madrid beneath the banner "In search of an international solution for Palestine". Hosted by the Institute for International Relations and Dialogue, this one was attended by former Palestinian minister for security affairs, Mohamed Dahlan, Hassan Abdul-Rahman, Palestinian ambassador to Washington, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben- Ami, along with other Palestinian and Israeli figures, and international experts in peace-keeping operations. The focus of this seminar was the possibility of sending international observers or peace-keeping forces to Palestine in the event that the roadmap gets under way.

To this frenzy of activity we can add the preparations in progress in Cairo to hold a roundtable dialogue between the Palestinian factions to investigate the possibility of new "truce", the preparations currently under way in Jerusalem and Ramallah for the anticipated meeting between the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers, and Ahmed Qurei’s recent trip to Jordan to convey to the Jordanian monarch a message to take to President Bush on his forthcoming visit to Washington.

Obviously, something is being brewed up behind the scenes. But what?

Clearly, all the parties involved in the Middle East peace process have strong reasons or motives for acting at this time, even if their reasons or motives do not necessarily overlap. Evidently, there is a general resolve that it is no longer possible to stand on the sidelines under the current circumstances and that something has to be done. Whether this resolve was stimulated by a nudge from the outside or reached voluntarily through personal conviction is difficult to say. What is important, however, is that everyone is on the move, albeit not necessarily in the same direction.

Contrary to the opinion of some, I do not believe that there is anything to suggest that this commotion and fanfare is orchestrated. No, the whole business seems pretty improvised and extemporaneous. However, as long as everyone is moving and forced to shift places, perhaps some will reveal, on their way, that they have approached or distanced themselves from others more than had been expected. In other words, even this apparently spontaneous or random activity should result in a redistribution of the players on the stage in a drama the author of which has not yet worked out the rest of the plot, and is, therefore, stretching the scenes in progress out until inspiration — we hope — strikes.

But why all this activity now?

For one, the Bush administration has finally realised that has gotten itself in over its head in Iraq, and that it needs some ways to improve its image to the US electorate which is beginning to gear up for the presidential elections a year from now. The diversionary tactic of escalating the campaign against Iraq’s neighbours is always a possibility, but one whose time has not yet come. Until that time, it will have to restore calm on all fronts, including the Arab-Israeli front.

The Israeli government has begun to realise, for its part, that a military solution to the Palestinians is impossible until it destroys the Syrian, Iranian, resistance triangle. But this would only be possible to achieve through a full-scale regional war, the conditions for which, in igniting it and winning it, are not presently available. It therefore must feign to go along with the current trend and come up with some proposals of its own — both in order to buy time and to offset similar attempts on the part of the Israeli left.

The PA, on the third hand, which has begun to emerge from its recent bout of crises, finds that it has little alternative but to try, along with Egypt and Jordan, to take advantage of an international and regional climate that it regards as less unfavourable than that which had prevailed until recently, and surely than that which will prevail following the US presidential elections. There is only a window, perhaps, of a few months for a last ditch effort to make a breakthrough in the peace process. These three parties hope that the Geneva Accord will have sufficiently galvanised Israeli society into responding positively to that initiative and that this, in conjunction with other favourable regional and international circumstances, will generate sufficient impetus to give the peace process one last chance.

Opposition forces, in both Palestine and Israel, have begun to realise that they are at risk of being permanently marginalised, especially after the appearance of the Geneva understanding which they had condemned. Thus, the Israeli Labour Party has to come up with something of its own to demonstrate, firstly, that it is no longer in Sharon’s pocket and, secondly, that it has a better alternative to the Geneva Accord. Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions must respond to pressures to initiate a new truce, so as not to be held accountable for the failure of this "last chance", but, at the same time, not to the extent of being forced into accepting the Geneva proposal.

As the foregoing indicates, the general strategies of the parties concerned remain the same — even if they have had to make some tactical accommodations to the current regional and international circumstances. Nevertheless, I believe that the only party that stands to benefit form the latest round of activity and manoeuvre is Sharon. The continued steadfastness of the Palestinian people and Israel’s inability to halt the Palestinian Intifada by force of arms, combined with the revival of the Israeli left, whether it takes up the Geneva Accord or produces new initiatives that pit themselves against Likud positions, will compel Sharon to budge. But, as Sharon, bound by the current coalition he is leading, would never produce a solution that would be remotely acceptable to any Palestinian party, however moderate, he would confine himself to only those tactical concessions sufficient to set into motion a type of negotiating process he could prolong forever.

A closer inspection of what is taking place on the ground confirms these fears, and more. Even as Sharon declares that he will make "painful concessions" to demonstrate his earnestness and good will, he has picked up the pace on the construction of the separating wall, in a direct challenge to the declaration of the UN secretary-general in his latest report that the wall constitutes a breach of international law and jeopardises the peace process. Also, in violation of UN resolutions and international law, the Israeli government recently gave the go ahead to the construction of a new complex of Israeli settlements.

How should we deal with this situation?

Ahmed Qurei has nothing to gain if he agrees to enter into negotiations with Sharon before the latter proclaims that he will commit himself, at the very least, to halting the racist separating wall and to bring a complete halt to settlement construction, including that which he categorises as "natural growth". There is no point for one party to build a wall or settlements on territory that does not belong to him if he truly intends to withdraw from that territory. The only way to interpret Sharon’s ongoing construction of the wall and approval of new settlement construction is that he intends establish a de facto border and annex more Palestinian territory to Israel. It would be wrong for Qurei to heed those appeals to press ahead with negotiations at any price in order to "salvage what we can" of Palestinian territory that is being gobbled up daily by Israeli settlements. No negotiations in the past have ever kept Israeli from building settlements. Indeed, negotiations often furnished the cover for boosting settlement construction.

Instead, the PA should concentrate its efforts in this most crucial and sensitive phase on the domestic front, with the aim of formulating a unified strategy in managing the conflict with Israel. Part of this strategy should entail the pursuit of all possible avenues for establishing channels of communication with those Israeli factions eager to topple Sharon. Another part should entail a diplomatic drive aiming to accomplish two ends. The first is to transform the roadmap from a project sponsored by the Quartet to a detailed plan, the execution of which would be supervised by the Security Council in accordance with Article 7 of the UN Charter. The second is to prepare for the international conference stipulated under the roadmap, the purpose of which is to devise the new mechanisms and agenda for a comprehensive settlement of all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. After all, the only way to create a truly independent Palestinian state is to make that part of an overall vision for a solution to all aspects of the conflict, including issues of water resources, refugees and weapons of mass destruction.

To revert to the one-step-at-a-time approach is simply to revert to negotiations for the sake of negotiating, which is the shortest path to the loss of Palestinian land and rights. What the Palestinians need to sign is a comprehensive settlement to be implemented under the supervision of the international community; not an agreement to enter into negotiations that we know beforehand Israel wants to protract indefinitely.