Geneva Jive: Menachem Klein’s “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine”

What if you make a peace agreement and nobody comes? That’s the fundamental story behind “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative.” It’s a fascinating look into the conflict and the “peace industry.” Contrary to the intention of its author, political scientist Menachem Klein, it raises more doubts than hopes about the future of the peace process.

(Caveat lector: I translated this book, and two previous books by Klein into English. He’s a neighbor and friend and fellow-member of Kehilat Yedidya.)

The failure of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 was a watershed for Israel-Palestinian relations and for the Israeli peace camp. The failure of the peace initiative intensified distrust and suspicion on both sides, sending the region into a dangerous slide of renewed violence, which culminated in the outbreak of the second Intifada at the end of that year. And for many in the Israeli peace camp, the breakdown of peace talks seemed to falsify their long-held belief that the Palestinians were partners for peace.

But a small number of advocates of Israel-Palestinian accommodation maintained that the Camp David talks should be continued, even as the government of Ehud Barak slid towards electoral defeat–and even afterwards, when the government of Ariel Sharon abandoned negotiations with the Palestinians.

Klein, who has long been involved in planning for and participating in peace negotiatons, numbered among this group. Under the leadeship of Yossi Beilin on the Israeli side and Yassir `Abd-Rabbu on the Palestinian side, Israelis and Palestinians conducted a series of encounters that led in the end to a detailed draft peace agreement, known as the Geneva Agreement.

These citizen-negotiators believed that if they could show the Israeli and Palestinian publics that an agreement was possible, the publics on both sides would pressure their leaders to achieve it.

Offering an unusual but instructive account that combines detached academic analysis with personal experience as a negotiator, Klein shows how the citizen negotiators addressed the hurdles of Jerusalem, refugee rights, and borders and how specific solutions were reached. Klein, who speaks fluent Arabic and has had close working relationships with many Palestinians over many years, is able, more than any other Israeli writer, to explain the Palestinian point of view and why the offer made at Camp David, which seemed so generous in Israeli eyes, looked unpalatable to the Palestinians. He also addresses the fact that the Camp David failure was due in part to differing styles of negotiation, deriving from culture, history, and the character of each side’s leadership.

The citizen negotiators reached an agreement, published it, and promoted it in a massive public relations campaign. But it did not fundamentally change the perceptions of the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Neither side was willing to make the concessions the draft agreement called for, certainly not in the atmosphere of distrust created by the failure of Camp David and the outbreak of violence.

Klein’s account is sobering because even this group of citizens, comprising the most reasonable and peace-minded figures on both sides of the divide, barely reached an ageement. The project nearly fell apart at several junctures, and the final draft was achieved only hours before the official signing ceremony. If these people–so unrepresentative of their respective publics–could barely do it, can we really expect national leaders, accountable to their populations at large, to do so?

Ultimately, there’s a problem with the Geneva model. Because in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the devil is not in the details. The devil is the conflict of narratives. And it’s in the distrust and disappointment created not only by decades of conflict, but also, paradoxically, by the very attempt to make peace, first with the Oslo accords and second at Camp David.

The Geneva process did not teach us anything we didn’t know already. From the time of Oslo, and certainly after Camp David, the broad outlines of the final status agreement have been clear. They were codified at Camp David in the principles laid down by President Clinton. Both sides know what concessions they need to make for peace. But, at present, neither side is willing to make those concessions. And, in fact, not unreasonably. The concessions require both sides to make major sacrifices, and more critically, to incur major risks. But, when the future looks uncertain, when leaders on both sides are weak, and when all the precedents favor a pessimistic view of the chances that the other side can be counted on to keep its word, what leader would take those risks?

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