Siegman: Unofficial Geneva Accord May Spur New Debate on Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians

Siegman: Unofficial Geneva Accord May Spur New Debate on Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians

December 1, 2003 6:14 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the director of its U.S./Middle East Project, says that even though neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli government negotiated the unofficial peace agreement known as the Geneva Accord, it may "help open up a debate in Israel" on a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.

As for Yasir Arafat, Siegman believes that the Palestinian leader will accept a two-state solution in which Palestinian and Israeli states would coexist, but that Arafat is reluctant to commit himself to the Geneva Accord as long as it is opposed by the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon.

Siegman was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 1, 2003.

In Geneva today, an unofficial accord for a peace settlement between Israel and a Palestinian state was formally unveiled. How did this come about?

The so-called Geneva Accord— so-called because it was not negotiated by governments— is an exercise initiated by individuals who set about trying to work out a model [peace] agreement. [They sought] to persuade both Palestinians and Israelis that— contrary to the widespread myth that neither side has a partner for an agreement on the other side— in fact it is possible to work out an accord that meets the vital interests of both sides. This effort was initiated by Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister in Israel for the Labor Party government of Ehud Barak and now a private citizen, and by Yasir Abed-Rabbo, who was a minister in [a previous] Palestinian government and held important jobs in previous Palestinian Authority cabinets. He is not currently a member of the Palestinian government. They are private individuals and they had with them teams of fairly distinguished Palestinians and Israelis, not just from the left but from the center as well, who worked out this set of understandings that deal with all of the permanent status issues in great detail.

Could we go through these details? What does the accord say about borders?

The two sides agreed that the border negotiations begin with the lines that separated Israel from the West Bank before the 1967 war. [After the June 1967 war, Israel occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem, which since 1948 had been under Jordanian control; it also captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt.] The Geneva Accord provides that adjustments to that border can be made to accommodate Israel’s security needs and Israel’s political needs in terms of the settlers [who have moved into those areas since 1967]. Israel would be allowed to keep settlements that are close to the border and that involve very substantial numbers of settlers, something like 70 to 80 percent of those there now. But if Palestinians agree to this kind of accommodation to Israel, the Israelis are obligated to give Palestinians comparable territory on their side of the border. The trade would be one for one. In fact, both sides have worked out maps that indicate precisely where the new border would be, how many of the settlements and settlers would remain in the West Bank, and what territories on the Israeli side of the border would be transferred by Israel to the Palestinians.

What about Jerusalem, which after 1967 was made Israel’s undivided capital?

The agreement on Jerusalem is that it will once again be divided, which is to say that Palestinians would have the part of Jerusalem whose residents are predominantly Palestinian, while Israel could retain for its capital West Jerusalem and those parts of East Jerusalem whose populations are predominantly Israeli. The point is that this arrangement will affect, of course, only East Jerusalem, not West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem was Israeli before 1967 and will remain Israeli. The accord also discusses the future of holy places. [Under its terms,] the Temple Mount, which is called by the Muslims al-Haram al-Sharif, on which the al-Aqsa Mosque is situated, would revert to Palestinian sovereignty. However, there would be an international monitoring arrangement that would see to it that some secondary agreements dealing with archeological digs underneath the Temple Mount [would be subject to] Israeli-Palestinian approval.

And the Western Wall, which is sacred to Jews?

Would be under Israeli sovereignty.

What about the Palestinian so-called right of return to lands once lived in by Palestinians but are now occupied by Israel?

Interestingly, the right of return as such is not mentioned in the Geneva Accord. Instead, there is a very complicated discussion of how refugee issues should be dealt with. What the agreement provides for is the following: refugees [many of whom still live in camps in the West Bank and Gaza or in Lebanon and Syria] will have a number of options. The first and most important one is the right of return to the new state of Palestine. The second is to remain in those countries where they are now located [and receive] compensation, restitution, and so forth. A third option is for a limited number to return to Israel, if they had homes there, but there are two qualifications. The first one is that the number of refugees who would be allowed to return is limited and there is a complicated formula [to calculate the] maximum [permitted]. It comes to about 40,000 refugees over a period of several years. The second condition is that Israel has the right to decide who it will take back. So, no one has an automatic right to return to Israel.

Any of those allowed to return will do so not under any right of return provision or any United Nations resolution. Rather, it will essentially be a kind of humanitarian, family reunion type of affair.

Who would pay the compensation to those Palestinians who choose not to return? Israel?

There would be an international fund to which many countries would contribute, including Israel. Israel will be obliged to put money into that fund.

How does this accord play in the current Israeli and Palestinian governments?

With respect to Israel, the answer is fairly straightforward. The Israeli government under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has utterly rejected the terms of this agreement. It has been very angry with its authors, claiming that they had no right to do this. Yossi Beilin and his [Israeli] colleagues have responded by saying they did not pretend to negotiate for Israel and [that they were trying] to show that it is theoretically possible to achieve an understanding that deals with all of the difficult issues in ways that could be acceptable to the two sides. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Israeli government will have absolutely nothing to do with this agreement. And the chances of the Sharon government entering a political process, a negotiation based on the Geneva Accord, are nil.

What are the government’s main objections? Are there specific details it does not like?

Yes. This government has made it very clear that for ideological reasons and for what it considers security reasons, it will never return to the 1967 borders, that it will retain for what it claims are security reasons large parts of the West Bank, probably more than half, including the Jordan Valley territory next to the Jordan boundary. It has said that under no circumstances will it divide Jerusalem. To the contrary, it expects to enlarge it and to annex to Israel an enlarged Jerusalem. It will never accept any returning refugees. On virtually all the principal agreements incorporated in the Geneva Accord, this government is on record that it will not accept any of them.

On Arafat’s side?

On the Palestinian side, the negotiators are all people who are fairly close to Arafat. The assumption all along has been that they would not have done this if they hadn’t [first] gotten permission from Arafat. Whether Arafat allowed them to do this because he agreed with the outcome or simply because he thought it was good politics to let them do it, is not clear. More recently, there have been angry protests from various Palestinian quarters, and first and foremost from the refugees, who feel that their interests are being sold out. As soon as these protests started, Arafat tried to distance himself from the accord. He said all along when he was asked whether he accepted its recommendations, "I cannot accept recommendations worked out by individuals who don’t represent their country. I can only accept or reject recommendations that are put forward by the government of Israel." But he said he compliments the negotiators and thinks what they did was constructive and helpful.

It had therefore been believed that he felt positively about these agreements. More recently, however, his tune has changed. Now what he is saying, and there is a certain amount of logic to it, is, "I cannot say I accept these proposals, because whatever I agree to, I do so in an official capacity, which means that I will have made concessions to the Sharon government, at the very time the Sharon government says it rejects every one of the proposals made on the Israeli side. The Israeli government would have pocketed my concessions, since I would be speaking officially for the Palestinian Authority, and I would have zero to show in return." He uses this as a justification for not saying anything that indicates he is accepting the specifics of this agreement.

Some people believe it would be impossible for Arafat under any circumstances to accept a two-state solution that does not include the right of return for Palestinians to what is now Israel. Do you agree with that?

No, I do not. I think that Arafat has never rejected the idea of a two-state solution. He has always, officially and on-the-record, accepted it, at the beginning of the Oslo negotiations in 1993, and more explicitly since then. I think this is an argument made by people who themselves reject the two-state solution on the Israeli side.

I was thinking of people like Dennis Ross, the chief Mideast negotiator for President Clinton whom I interviewed recently.

I think they are absolutely wrong about that. The fact of the matter is that people speculate and have these theoretical notions about what the Palestinians will accept or reject, when on the ground, on the Israeli side, they have already pre-empted the possibility of returning anything more than 40 percent of the territories.

Isn’t the Geneva Accord similar to what President Clinton offered at Camp David in 2000, along with then-Prime Minister Barak, and what was offered again by the Israelis at Taba [Egypt] to the Palestinians in January 2001?

It is similar. And of course the people who like it in Israel are designated as being on the left. The interesting thing is that polls done recently show that support and opposition for the Geneva plan are nearly equal, with virtually the same number of people who oppose it as support it.

What is the reaction of the Bush administration?

It has said very little about it. Recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell has publicly expressed support, not for the agreement itself, but for the efforts of Beilin and Abed-Rabbo.

Is the accord consistent with the road map peace plan?

Yes. The Geneva Accord is consistent with the third and final stage of the road map, in which the parties are to negotiate the final accords.

Realistically, is this peace plan dead-on-arrival in Israel?

For the Israeli government, yes. The question, in my view, is not whether this will change the policies of the Israeli government. The question is whether this will help open up a debate in Israel. This builds on some recent developments: the criticism in late October of the government by the Israeli chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, and in mid-November by four former heads of the Shin Bet [Israel’s internal security agency]. The criticism was coming from important people who are either center or even right. These agreements, and what is happening in Geneva, amount to theater, but it is theater that may help generate and widen and deepen the opening of debate in Israel.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa


Top Stories on CFR

United States

How an EU-style “Single Market Project” could spur U.S. Services Sector

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Targeted operations by U.S. forces have eliminated notorious leaders of armed extremist groups, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri the latest among them. But how much they disrupt these terrorist organizations is questionable.


Kenya’s next president will have to win more than just votes to gain legitimacy.