The Geneva Storm

The Geneva crowd hit Washington like a storm last week. After publicly launching their peace initiative in Switzerland, the group of 10 Israeli and Palestinian activists and leaders came to Washington and New York to promote their effort.

For four days, they occupied center stage. They appeared at a dozen public events generating a remarkable 5,000 news stories nationwide. They were featured on every major television network, met with policy makers, opinion leaders and audiences of influential Arab Americans and American Jews.

The efforts of this Geneva group not only dramatically transformed the U.S.’s reporting of Middle East news, they ignited a peace conversation that filled the editorial pages of major newspapers and even spawned a number of congressional resolutions in support of their peace-making venture.

Rightists and hardliners on both sides of the conflict’s divide may have condemned this Geneva group, but the impact they have made in the U.S. can’t be so easily dismissed. Their contribution will be felt on many levels and will grow in the months to come.

Here’s what they did:

1. They shattered dangerous myths.

While violence raged during the past three years, thousands died amidst horrible destruction. Not only that, but the belief that peace was possible died as well. In fact, extremists on both sides cultivated and fed the myth that compromise was not possible. Both sides argued that the only solution was for the "other" to be defeated.

As killings and repression became the order of the day, extremists developed myths to support their "zero-sum" strategies. "Arabs (or Zioinsts) are incapable of making peace." "There is no one to talk to." "They only understand force."

The danger inherent in this myth making was that it was self-fulfilling. More dangerous still was the fact that as the outside world watched Israelis and Palestinians engage in their death dance, they too came to believe that the conflict was intractable and that peace was a hopeless dream.

The Geneva Accords have dealt a blow to those myths. The negotiators and signatories to the agreements are not dreamy idealists, they are hardened fighters who took what seemed impossible and forged a model for an agreement. The Israeli side included a former minister, a retired general who headed the Israeli military and a Likud Central Committee member. On the Palestinian side, included a PLO Executive Committee member, a Palestinian Authority Minster and a general who headed the Palestinian security services. Together they argued and negotiated for three years in an effort to test the limits of the possible concerning the hardest issues that their governments had failed to resolve.

The Accord they reached, while not perfect, shows that with political will and good faith, compromise is possible. In doing so they present a dramatic challenge to the extremists and their myths.

2. They rekindled hope.

To see the outpouring of support these negotiators have received is to understand how deep the yearning for peace is. I remembered the euphoria that followed Oslo and then remembered, as well, how it disappeared in the years that followed.

During the past three years, it appeared that all that hope had been lost. The political discourse on both sides had become so harsh. The Israeli mythic narrative-‘Barak offered Arafat the best deal ever. Arafat rejected it and resorted to violence showing that Palestinians never really wanted peace’-came to dominate America’s political discourse.

But through their efforts, the Geneva group has rekindled hope, transformed the political discussion and brought many who had drifted off to the right, back to the center of the peace discussion.

American Jewish newspapers and writers that one month ago had been decrying any U.S. pressure on the Sharon government, have once again found their peace wings and are flying in support of the Accords.

Not only is there someone to talk to, but Arab Americans and American Jews are, once again, eager to talk and to plan how to work together to support the Accords. It is as if hungry people who had despaired over the absence of food, now find their table bountifully set.

By laying out a real road map, with detail, the Geneva group have restored hope and given new energy to those who wanted to believe and now can once again dream that peace is possible.

3. They have put Sharon in a corner.

On the same day that the Accords were reported in the United States, Israel announced the construction of a record number of settlement housing units and performed yet another murderous raid into a Palestinian town. In defiance of commitments made to the Bush Administration, the Sharon government revealed plans to legalize some of the so-called "illegal outposts" that were to have been dismantled and continued to build the West Bank Wall that is both destroying Palestinian lives and property and the prospects of establishing a future sovereign and viable Palestinian state.

Now while all of this is known in the Arab world and although developments such as these had been reported in the West, they were not the focus of coverage or political discussion. Instead, attention has been directed toward what has been seen as the Palestinian failures.

The Geneva Accords and the positive response they have received internationally have refocused U.S. attention on the measures being taken by the Israelis that frustrate the achievement of peace. The expression of encouragement given to the agreements by Secretary of State Colin Powell, his decision to meet with the chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and the harsh Israeli government criticism meted out to Powell, has further fed the negative focus on Israel’s behavior. And this, in turn, has created a division in the once unified support for Israeli policy that for the past several years has dominated the U.S.
discussion. Already, for example, a group of U.S. Senators and members of Congress have sponsored different resolutions in support of the Accords.

4. This has led to a healthy redefinition of the meaning of being pro-Israel.

When the Oslo Accords were signed, pro-Likud U.S. organizations became harsh opponents of the peace effort. They established a counter lobby in Washington to press an anti-Oslo agenda in Congress. When the new Republican leadership took the helm of Congress in 1994, they worked together with these Likudniks to impose conditions on U.S. diplomacy and harsh terms on the Palestinian Authority.

When Netanyahu was elected Prime Minster in Israel, this pro-Likud trend came into an even more dominant position, where it has remained until the present time. Pro-peace organizations within the American Jewish organizations operated at a disadvantage. Although they continued to work and coordinate with Arab Americans and even though they reflected the views of the majority of American Jews, these groups did not have the ability to define a pro-peace, pro-Israel agenda that carried weight in Congress.

According to the more dominant pro-Israel lobbyists, being pro-Israel meant supporting whatever the government of Israel did or wanted to do. Thus, expressing support for the "Road Map’ when the government of Israel was urging the Bush Administration to change it or delay its issuance could earn a senator the description of being anti-Israel.

Now with the Geneva Accords there is the beginning of a healthy debate. Senators who support the Accords are able to say ‘I am pro-Israel and pro-peace’. This is a freeing and positive development.


Now critics may argue that the Accords are imperfect, but crafters and supporters reply "do better". They invite critics to find a better formula that can be agreed to by both sides. By focusing on achieving an answer to the peace process’s most difficult questions: how to deal with refugees, settlements, Jerusalem, etc-the Geneva negotiators have laid out a map to the "possible". And politics, at its best, is about achieving just that-what is possible. They are establishing a "fact on the ground" in response to Sharon’s "facts on the ground". They are inviting Palestinians and Israelis to return to sanity and to give up the illusions of zero-sum conquest or defeat.

They do not hold power or government, so therefore, can not enforce an agreement. But they have the power to sway opinion that can change governments and that can in due time make an enforceable agreement possible.