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Mideast Moves Into Future Tense

Nissim Calderon, a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben Gurion University in Israel, is the author of "Pluralism vs. Multiculturalism in Israel."

Four key figures in the Arab-Israeli conflict have recently recognized that the present track toward peace has become unworkable and that they must find a different route.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s right-wing deputy prime minister, came out with a plan for unilateral withdrawal from most of the occupied territories. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- not known for his pacifist tendencies either -- declared he would dismantle some settlements whether or not any agreement was reached. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei announced ominously that if a two-state solution was not found, the Palestinian Authority would adopt a plan for a single, binational state. And Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas, declared that he would favor a cease-fire if Israel would withdraw to the 1967 borders and allow refugees to return.

There are those who say that these are just trial balloons and not real plans, because they skirt the problematic issues standing in the way of actual implementation. There are those who say that because each of these options would be viewed by the other side as a catastrophe, they are not plans so much as veiled threats. There are those who say that none of these plans has been accepted by the Bush administration -- let alone the rest of the international community -- and thus they have no chance of success.

Perhaps. But the fact that these plans are even being proposed at all marks a milestone at this depressing moment in the stalled Middle East peace process. It suggests that the value of the past is plummeting and the values of possible futures are rising. And in a region haunted by the past, where people are killed daily in the name of the past, we should not scoff at a moment when the holy icons of the past are starting to use the future tense.

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Many factors have helped set these dynamics in motion. The fact that neither side has emerged victorious from more than three years of unrelenting brutality has played an important role. So has the fact (on the Israeli side) that, within 15 years, the natural rate of population growth will lead to a situation where the Jews are no longer a majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. So has the fact that people are fed up. (A poll taken several months ago found that one-fourth of those surveyed said they were considering leaving Israel -- a fact even hardened politicians can’t ignore.)

But the other factor that has dramatically changed the political dynamic in Israel and the Palestinian territories is the document that has come to be known as the Geneva Accord. This is the agreement negotiated over the last three years by former Knesset member Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Cabinet member Yasser Abed-Rabbo. Under the plan, a Palestinian state would be created with borders roughly following those that existed prior to the 1967 Middle East War. Jerusalem would be divided, settlements would be dismantled and Palestinians would relinquish the right of return into Israel.

Opponents on both sides have attacked the accord, saying it reflects naive illusions, and some have even accused the signatories of being accomplices of the other side’s villains. But the agreement has had an effect.

Mohammed Dahlan, a leader of the Fatah movement in Gaza, said in an interview, “The Geneva Accord has already led to a dramatic change in Israeli and Palestinian public opinion. Your side is now debating withdrawal; our side have begun wrangling with the issue of the right of return. On both sides, cracks have begun to develop in what once was an ironclad taboo.”

Olmert views the accord negatively but doesn’t deny its importance. Asked why he was now calling for withdrawal from the territories, he repeatedly answered: If you don’t agree to my proposal, you’ll end up with the Geneva Accord.

It seems that the deep need both sides have for hope has created a moment of sanity. Israelis were not fooled into focusing on “treason” committed by the individuals who signed the accord but on the more serious question of the price that Israelis would have to pay if the accord were implemented: withdrawing once and for all from the occupied territories and dismantling most Jewish settlements.

Likewise, among the Palestinians, the debate focused on giving up the right of return -- the main price to be paid by them. The accord makes it clear that refugees will not have any right of return to land in Israel -- a right that, if granted, would mean the destruction of the Jewish state.

Of all the reasons for the failure of the Oslo peace process, two stand out prominently: Palestinian schools never took down maps indicating that all the territory belongs to the Palestinians, and at no point during negotiations were the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements stopped. The issues at the core of the conflict remained untouched, allowing the fundamentalists on both sides to derail the process.

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The Geneva Accord does touch these core problems -- all of them.

And it teaches a lesson for the next serious initiative: Oslo-style gradualism, in the spirit of “let’s begin with the easy problems and leave the hard ones for later,” serves only the fundamentalists of all stripes.

A comprehensive approach may seem difficult, but Geneva proved it to be attractive to the two publics. If and when somebody in power tries to return to the difficult task of making peace, Geneva is both a stirring prologue and a tangible asset.


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