Amos Oz: The Gruntwork of Peace (Israeli)

Amos Oz The Palestinians and Israelis have been in the news the last few days, March 14-16, 2010, as there is an effort by the U.S. to help resume peace talks between the two.  Most people who listen to the reports about how efforts are progressing or coming to a halt, and who see the … Continued

Amos Oz

The Palestinians and Israelis have been in the news the last few days, March 14-16, 2010, as there is an effort by the U.S. to help resume peace talks between the two.  Most people who listen to the reports about how efforts are progressing or coming to a halt, and who see the media, are possibly moved to a new level of despair.  Can peace ever be accomplished?  We have seen previous “talks” come and go.  Prizes have been awarded, declarations and accords made, but still no resolution.  In October 2003, nearly seven years ago, a group of Israeli and Palestinians entered into negotiations which are called the Geneva Accord.  One of the participants in this dialogue was Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists and a founder of the Peace Now Movement.  Following the Accords, Oz wrote an editorial for London’s Guardian entitled, “We Have Done the Gruntwork of Peace.”   Though the Geneva Accord was not signed by any government or institution, and probably is not acceptable to a large percentage of people in either group, the document is still important for the work it accomplished. Oz wrote about the Accord:

“The goal of the exercise is solely to present the Israeli and Palestinian publics with a window through which they can view a different landscape – no more car bombs and suicide bombers and occupation and oppression and expropriation, no more endless war and hatred. Instead, here is a detailed, cautious solution that does not circumvent any one of the fundamental questions.”

Perhaps the document should be explored again as an introduction to the gruntwork that has already been accomplished.  Visit Reflective Writings and the Arts, voiceseducation.org/content/reflective-writings-and-arts, to read a synopsis of the Geneva Accord.

‘We have done the gruntwork of peace’

 By Amos Oz

The Guardian (UK), Friday October 17, 2003  

I went to the Israeli-Palestinian conference in Jordan in a sceptical frame of mind. I estimated that, as so often in the past, we might succeed in drafting a joint declaration of principles about the need to make peace, to halt terror, to end the occupation and oppression, to mutually recognise each other’s rights, and to live as neighbours in two states for two peoples.

We have done all that many times before, at all kinds of conferences and gatherings and with agreements and public statements and what have you. At many points in the past 10 years we have been in striking distance of peace, only to slide again into the abyss of violence and despair.

The same old points of dispute would, I feared, trip us up again: “the right of return” or a solution to the refugee problem? “Return to the 1967 borders” or a logical map that also takes the present into account, and not just history? Open and explicit recognition of the national rights of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples to live each in its own country, or just some equivocating platitude about “peaceful coexistence”? Explicit Palestinian assent to finally and absolutely renounce any additional future claims, or “black holes” that would permit an eventual renewal of conflict and violence?

In previous agreements, including the Oslo agreement, the two sides were very careful not to get caught in the “radioactive core” of the conflict. Refugees, Jerusalem, end of the conflict, permanent borders – all these minefields were marked off by white ribbons and their resolution put off to a better future. The Camp David conference collapsed, after all, the minute it trod on those mines.
A two-family house, not a double bed

On the first evening, the members of the two groups meet for an opening talk. It is a few days after the murder of families and children at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, a few hours after the killing of several innocent Palestinians in Rafiah, children also among them. A strange ambience pervades the room. Here and there someone tries to crack a joke, perhaps in order to mask the mixture of emotion, resentment, suspicion, and goodwill.

Colonel Shaul Arieli, former commander of the Israel Defence Forces in the Gaza Strip, sits facing Samir Rantisi, a cousin of Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz Rantisi. The son of the late Faisal Husseini, Abd al-Qader al- Husseini (named after his grandfather, who in my childhood was referred to as the commander of the Arab gangs, and who was killed in 1948 in a battle with Israeli forces) sits facing Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, a former deputy commander of the Israeli army’s strategic planning division. Next to David Kimche, formerly senior Mossad official and director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, sits Fares Kadura, a leader of the Tanzim, a Palestinian militant guerrilla group.
Through the window, beyond the Dead Sea, we can see the small cluster of lights that marks Kibbutz Kalia, which the Geneva document would transfer to Palestinian control. We also see the large dome of lights marking Ma’aleh Adumim, the Jerusalem suburb along the road to Jericho that, according to the same document, would become an inalienable part of the State of Israel.

We talk and debate (in fluent Hebrew) until after midnight with Hisham Abd al-Raziq, who spent 21 years – half his life – in Israeli prisons. Now he serves as the country’s minister for prisoners’ affairs. He is almost certainly the world’s only cabinet minister for prisoners’ affairs. But our own minister-prisoner, Natan Scharansky, is apparently the only person in the entire world who bears the title “minister for diaspora affairs”. Some day, Palestine will most likely have a minister for diaspora affairs instead of a minister for prisoners’ affairs.

 There is a certain intimacy at such meetings: the Israelis and Palestinians are enemies, but not strangers. The Swiss observer at the conference was certainly astonished to see the frequent switches that took place here, in the rooms and in the corridors, between anger and back-slapping and between jabs as sharp as slivers of glass and simultaneous outbursts of laughter. (Nervous but liberating laughter was brought on by unintentional double-entendres, such as when an Israeli said, “Could I detain you for a moment?” and when a Palestinian said “I’ll blow up the meeting on this point.”)

When the day comes to sit down with the Syrians, faces will be rigid and stern on both sides of the negotiating table. So the Palestinians are, they say, with the Saudis. But here, in the hotel on the Dead Sea shore (Israeli Knesset member Chaim Oron and former Palestinian cabinet minister Yasir Abd-Rabbo walk around in sandals and shorts) we are more like a long-married couple in their divorce attorney’s waiting room. They and we can joke together, shout, mock, accuse, interrupt, place a hand on a shoulder or waist, throw invective at each other, and once or twice even shed a tear.

Because we and they have experienced 36 years of intimacy. Yes, a violent, bitter, warped intimacy, but intimacy, because only they and we, not the Jordanians and not the Egyptians and certainly not the Swiss, know exactly what a roadblock looks like and what a car-bomb sounds like and exactly what the extremists on both sides will say about us. Because since the Six Day War, we are as close to the Palestinians as a jailer is to the prisoner handcuffed to him. A jailer cuffing his wrist to that of a prisoner for an hour or two is a matter of routine. But a jailer who cuffs himself to his prisoner for 36 long years is himself no longer a free man. The occupation has also robbed us of freedom.
This conference was not meant to inaugurate a honeymoon between the two nations. Quite the opposite – it was aimed at, finally, attenuating this warped intimacy. At drafting a fair divorce agreement. A painful, complicated divorce, but also one that unlocks the handcuffs. They will live in their home and we will live in ours. The Land of Israel will no longer be a prison, or a double bed. It will be a two-family house. The handcuffed link between the jailer and his prisoner will become a connection between neighbours who share a stairwell.

A common memorial

Nabil Qasis, a former president of Bir-Zeit University and the Palestinian Authority’s minister of planning, is a polite, introverted, melancholy man. He is also a tough negotiator. He is perhaps the only member of the Palestinian group who has no inclination to jest or trade mild jabs with the Israelis. He stops me by the bathroom door to say: “Try, please, to understand: for me, giving up the right of return to the cities and villages we lost in 1948 is to change my identity from here on out.”

I really do “try to understand”. What the words mean is that Qasis’s identity is conditional on the eradication of my identity.

Afterwards, during a discussion in the meeting room, Nabil Qasis raises his voice and demands that the word “return” appear in the document. In exchange, he and his associates will consent to the word being accompanied by reservations. Avraham Burg, a religious Labor member of the Knesset and its former speaker, also raises his voice. He, too, is angry: let Nabil Qasis give up part of his national identity just as I, Avraham Burg, hereby relinquish no less than a part of my religious faith, inasmuch as I am prepared to agree, with a broken heart, to Palestinian sovereignty on the Temple Mount.

For my part, I say that as far as I’m concerned, “return” is a code name for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of two Palestinian states on its ruins. If there’s return, there’s no agreement. Furthermore, I will be a party only to a document that contains explicit recognition of the Jewish people’s national right to their own country.
This was one of any number of difficult moments of crisis during the conference. In the end, neither the term “right of return” nor the word “return” appear anywhere in the document. It speaks of a comprehensive solution of the entire Palestinian refugee problem, outside the borders of the State of Israel. Moreover, the document we signed, the Geneva Initiative, recognises, unequivocally, the right of the Jewish people to their own country, alongside the state of the Palestinian people.

As far as I am aware, we have never heard from any representative Palestinian actor the words “the Jewish people,” and we have certainly not heard any word of recognition of the Jewish people’s national right to establish an independent state in the Land of Israel.

At 2.30am, over the 15th cup of coffee, in a break between argument and drafting and between discussion and bargaining, I tell Yasir Abd-Rabbo and several of his associates: some day we will have to erect a joint memorial to horrible folly, yours and ours. After all, you could have been a free people 55 years ago, five or six wars ago, tens of thousands of dead ago – our dead and your dead – had you signed a document similar to this one in 1948. And we Israelis could have long ago lived in peace and security had we offered the Palestinian people in 1967 what this document offers them now. Had we not been inebriated with victory after the conquests of the Six Day War.
We’ll even bear Sharon on our shoulders

There is no point at all to the hysteria that the document’s opponents are now encouraging. Its authors know very well that Sharon and his cabinet are the legal government of Israel. They also knew that their initiative, which is the fruit of an intense series of meetings between the parties, conducted in strict secrecy during a period of two years, is no more than an exercise.

The goal of the exercise is solely to present the Israeli and Palestinian publics with a window through which they can view a different landscape – no more car bombs and suicide bombers and occupation and oppression and expropriation, no more endless war and hatred. Instead, here is a detailed, cautious solution that does not circumvent any one of the fundamental questions.

Its fundamental principle is: we end the occupation and the Palestinians end their war against Israel. We give up the dream of Greater Israel and they give up the dream of Greater Palestine. We surrender sovereignty in parts of the Land of Israel where our hearts lie, and they do the same. The problem of the 1948 refugees, which is really the heart of our national security predicament, is resolved comprehensively, completely, and absolutely outside the borders of the State of Israel and with broad international assistance.

If this initiative is put into action, not a single Palestinian refugee camp, afflicted with despair, neglect, hatred, and fanaticism, will remain in the Middle East. In the document we have in hand, the Palestinian side accepts contractually, finally, and irrevocably that it does not have and will never have any future claims against Israel.
At the end of the conference, after the signing of the Geneva initiative, a representative of the Tanzim told us that we now perhaps see on the horizon the end of the 100-year war between the Jews and the Palestinians. It will be replaced, he said, by a bitter struggle between those on both sides who promote compromise and peace, and a fanatical coalition of Israeli and Palestinian extremists.

That struggle is now in full force. Sharon opened it even before the Geneva initiative was published, and the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad rushed to support him, using the very same vocabulary of vituperation.
What does the Geneva initiative document not have? It has no teeth. It is no more than 50 pages of paper. But if the people on both sides accept it, tomorrow or the day after, they will find that the gruntwork of making peace has already been done. Almost to the last detail. If Sharon and Arafat want to use this paper as a basis for an agreement, its authors will not insist on their copyright. What if Sharon presents a different, better, more intricate, more patriotic plan that is also accepted by the other side? Let him do it. We’ll congratulate him. Even though Sharon, as everyone knows, is a weighty personage, my friends and I will bear him on our shoulders.

(c) Amos Oz 2003. Translated by Haim Watzman.
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

The Background of the The Geneva Accord


Israeli opposition leaders, led by Yahad (then Shachar)  movement leader Yossi Beilin and Palestinians led by Yasser Abd-Rabbo, negotiated a new draft agreement, that would supposedly replace the Oslo accords as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The draft document was  finalized, and a ceremony marking the agreement was conducted in Jordan October 12, though the text has not yet been released and the document was not signed. Yossi Beilin had negotiated an analogous draft document with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) in 1995 when he was working for then Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The document is incomplete and is missing several appendices that are still in the process of negotiation. The key innovations of the agreement:

  • Palestinians give up Right of Return of Palestinian refugees
  • Israel gives up sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, and evacuates Ariel, Efrat, Kiryat Arba, Ofra, Elon Moreh, Bet El, Eli  Har Homa, the Hebron settlement and many others.
  • Access to the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif would be regulated at the discretion of the Muslim Waqf committee as at present.
  • Israel gets to keep the wailing wall, the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, Mt. Scopus and the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem, as well as Ma’aleh Edumim and the Gush Etzion settlement block and settlements around East Jerusalem.
  • The implementation of the accord will be overseen by an international committee, which would also ensure access to holy places,  and security will be the responsibility of a multinational force.

Under the agreement about half of the 220,000  Jewish settlers in the West Bank would have to evacuate their homes while the other half live in settlements that would be incorporated into Israel. The agreement makes no provisions whatever for Israeli Arabs living in portions of Jerusalem that will be given to the Palestinian authority.

The Geneva Accord apparently intends to say that Palestinian refugees will be compensated and will be resettled in Palestine or other countries, with only a few coming to live in Israel. A specific stipulation states that the number of refugees returning to Israel will be determined by Israel alone. On the other hand, the document refers to UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and UN Security Council resolution 242. Palestinians believe that Resolution 194 gives refugees the right to return to Israel if they so chose. Some Palestinian negotiators immediately denied that the document gives up right of return. Eventually most Palestinian organizations condemned the Geneva Accord for giving up right of return. Israel government figures and especially PM Ariel Sharon were quick to condemn the document, and even former Labor  party PM Ehud Barak heaped scorn on it. Yasser Arafat and Fatah Tanzim leadership cautiously welcomed the document.

Opinion polls showed that 20 to 50% of Palestinians and Israelis approved of the accord, depending on who asked the questions and how they were asked. Israeli Jews objected to losing sovereignty over the temple mount, excessive (in their view) territorial concessions, and ambiguous provisions concerning right of return for Palestinian refugees. Jews fear that if large numbers of refugees are allowed into Israel, they will constitute a majority within a short time because of higher Palestinian birth rate, and would put an end to Israel as a homeland as a Jewish people. Palestinian refugees insist on the right to return to the homes they abandoned or were forced to flee in 1948. Many have kept keys to their houses, though the houses themselves no longer exist. Israeli Jews have also raised the issue of compensation for over 600,000 Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries and lost their property when the State of Israel was created.

The Israeli government slammed the accords because they conceded much more than the government is willing to concede, and because they attempted to leapfrog the roadmap process,  which was not supposed to discuss final status until a much later phase.

Yossi Beilin is a very unpopular figure among large segments of the Israeli population, who were unhappy that he had gone over the heads of the elected government to conclude an agreement. Palestinians objected to giving up the Right of Return, and those, like Hamas, who who do not recognize Israel at all, objected to recognizing Israel as a separate Jewish state.

The negotiating teams do not represent their governments and the document is not a peace treaty that would be binding on any government. It is a proposal for a solution that has been worked out by both sides in the hope that the ideas will become part of the political mainstream in each society. As such it is an important milestone that has generated a great deal of discussion, and attracted the attention of the US Department of State. US Secretary of State Colin Powell met with the negotiators as did UN Secretary General Annan, and it was decided to follow up on progress in implementing this document.

Following the release of the Geneva Accord in December, Yossi Beilin’s Shahar movement was merged with the Meretz party to form a new party called Yahad. Yahad adopted the Geneva accord as the basis of its platform regarding the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israel Labor Party also adopted features of the accord, though Labor party leaders objected to the accord itself. Perhaps stimulated by the Geneva Accord, PM Ariel Sharon announced a unilateral “solution” that Israel would adopt if there was no further progress in implementing the roadmap.

Right wing Zionist commentators have characterized the Israeli signers as “leftist extremists.” One article averred that Yossi Beilin, an admirer of Reaganomics, is a “Stalinist,” but the list of participants includes people from the Israeli center and left and a Likud member of Knesset (parliament). Likewise, the Palestinians present were representative of the mainstream of Palestinian political life.

Following were some of the persons who participated in the meeting and who signed the cover letter accompanying the release of the accord:

 Palestinian participants:

Yasser Abed-Rabbo, former Minister of Information and Culture;Prisoners Affairs Minister Hisham Abd-el Razek; Nabil Qassis. former Minister of Tourism; Qadoura Fares and Mohamed Horani, members of the PLC associated with the Fatah/Tanzim movement; Ghadi Jarei, member of the Prisoners Committee and Fatah member; General Zoheir Manasra, former governor of Jenin and head of Preventative Security in the West Bank; Samih al-Abed; Bashar Jum’a;  Dr. Nazmi Shuabi; Gheith al-Omri; Jamal Zakut;   Nazmi Jub’a.

 Israeli participants:

Yossi Beilin, former Justice Minister; Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former IDF Chief of Staff and head of the Center party; Member of Knesset (Labor) and former Labor party leader Amram Mitzna; Member of Knesset (Labor) and former Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg; Brigadier General (res.) Giora Inbar, a former division commander; Brigadier General (res.) Gideon Sheffer, former director of the IDF Personnel Branch and deputy director of the National Security Council; Brigadier General (res.) Shlomo Brom, former head of the strategy staff; Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli;  Former Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Member of Knesset (Labor) Yuli Tamir; Member of Knesset (Meretz) and former Minister of Agriculture Haim Oron; Member of Knesset (Meretz) and former Minister of Education Yossi Sarid; Professor Aryeh Arnon (a leader of Peace Now); former Member of Knesset (Likud) Nehama Ronen; authors Amos Oz, David Grossman, and Zvia Greenfield; Dr. Menachem Klein; and Yoram Gabay.

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Jacques Prevert