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(photo credit: AP [file])
An enduring paradox of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the outline of a two-state peace settlement - that is, the points Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pressing the two sides to write down in time for a November conference - is readily apparent to anyone with a commitment to pragmatism and a good map. In fact, various groups of Israelis and Palestinians have already spelled them out and agreed to them on multiple occasions in the past 15 years. An Israeli cabinet voted to endorse the basic deal nearly seven years ago. The current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, committed himself back in 1995.
The general terms are these: Israel and the new state of Palestine will be separated by the pre-1967 armistice lines. There will be small swaps of territory that will allow most of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank to be annexed to Israel while providing a Palestinian land corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. The rest of the Jewish settlers will be evacuated, and Palestinian refugees will be invited to resettle in Palestine but not allowed to return to Israel. In Jerusalem, Arab neighborhoods will be governed by Palestine and Jewish neighborhoods by Israel, and each state will control its holiest sites in the Old City.
FAILURES OF leadership, not irreconcilable agendas or hostile public opinion, have prevented these terms from being formally signed and implemented. It's too soon to say whether the current Israeli and Palestinian governments will rise to the occasion. But Rice's diplomacy has already produced one significant result: It has proved that the past seven years - during which both Israelis and Palestinians did their best to change the terms of the available settlement, while the Bush administration mostly refused to intervene - were a tragic waste of time.
Between the end of the last serious Israeli-Palestinian talks, in January 2001, and their resumption this month, more than 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis have been killed in the conflict. Yet as soon as the talks began again, negotiators on both sides found themselves making pretty much the same demands and hinting at the same concessions that they did when President Bill Clinton tried to broker a deal.
THE SECOND Palestinian intifada, which began seven years ago this fall, represented Yasser Arafat's way of avoiding the surrender of a Palestinian "right of return" to Israel. But in private meetings with Israelis and Americans, Abbas now acknowledges - as he has before - that there will be no such return. Prime minister Ariel Sharon, who took office in early 2001, made a series of bold moves - from invading the West Bank and destroying Arafat's Palestinian Authority to unilaterally evacuating the Gaza Strip - aimed at redrawing the territorial map that Israeli negotiators had agreed to. But his successor, Ehud Olmert, has already suggested that Israel is ready, once again, to give up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and accept a border close to that of 1967.
All of this is both frustrating and encouraging for Yossi Beilin, a veteran left-wing Israeli politician who has been in the thick of most peace negotiations, formal and informal, for the past two decades. Beilin secretly negotiated a "framework for a final status agreement" with Abbas in 1995. In 2001, he was at the Israeli-Palestinian talks at the Egyptian resort of Taba, where most of the substance of a deal was agreed upon. In 2003, outside government, he led an Israeli team that negotiated a detailed mock treaty called the Geneva Accord; the leader on the Palestinian side was Yasser Abed Rabbo, who is a member of the latest Palestinian negotiating team.
The advantage of all this history, Beilin said during a visit to Washington last week, is that "there are no unknowns in this process. We know exactly what are the red lines of these people" - Abbas, Abed Rabbo and other Palestinian moderates - "and they have learned exactly what are the red lines on our side."
Beilin doesn't have a post in this Israeli government, but he still has interesting ideas. He doesn't think Olmert and Abbas will be able to agree on a detailed set of principles by November, not because they don't know what they are but because they are too weak politically to commit themselves. But a failure to produce a statement, he says, could be disastrous; it would hand a victory to Hamas and other Palestinian rejectionists and maybe touch off another round of violence.
So Beilin has a suggestion: "They could speak generally about most of the issues, and try to be more detailed about one of them." The one that is least controversial, Beilin says, is territory. He proposes a text that would declare that a Palestinian state will be created on the basis of Israel's 1967 borders, with land swaps and other adjustments. That, he says, would be a "historic agreement." The test is not whether that deal can be worked out or whether it can be implemented anytime soon. It is whether an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader will summon the courage, at last, to sign it.
The writer is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.
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