PARIS -- The unofficial Middle East peace plan unveiled in Geneva on Oct. 12 by former Israeli and Palestinian officials is the first hopeful initiative since the collapse of the Taba peace negotiations in 2001.
It could be even more. This Geneva initiative is a detailed draft settlement, not just another plan of how to get from here to there. It bears no comparison to the road map, a sham from the start. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon never intended to accept the road map, and the Bush administration never intended to enforce it.
The Geneva agreement represents an enormous investment of private time and effort by people led by Yossi Beilin, Ehud Barak's former justice minister, and by Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former Palestinian Authority cabinet secretary and information minister.
They decided to complete the near-agreement reached at Taba. The hard parts still weren't settled in 2001, and these people decided to to demonstrate that they could be settled.Here is what responsible people can agree upon, they are saying.
From Oslo to Taba, settlement proposals all started at the beginning. This seemed logical but proved fatal, since every one of them, including the road map, allocated lengthy periods of time for negotiation - "confidence-building" - eventually leading up to the hard problems.
The Camp David, White House and Wye Plantation accords were merely agreements to go on trying to agree. They all postponed the real problems, which allowed the people who don't want a settlement to subvert them.
The terrorist groups don't want any plan because they don't want Israel to exist. The Sharon government and the Israeli right have already called this initiative the result of a "secret and illegitimate relationship with the enemy."
They say it is an effort "to pull the rug out from under" an imminent Israeli victory over "terrorism."
The people who drafted the Geneva plan - with Swiss support - have reached detailed compromise agreements on all of the key obstacles to past agreement. The general form of any acceptable peace agreement always was known. Now this draft gives the details.
Everyone understands that Israel must choose between three possibilities.
One is to accept the principle upon which this Geneva draft plan is based: retirement from the territories seized in 1967 (with modest modifications, as detailed in the plan), so as to live as a democracy alongside an independent Palestinian state.
The second is to continue military control of the territories while the current Palestinian population, within five to eight years, comes to outnumber the Jewish population. In that case a democratic Israel will cease to be a Jewish state, or the Jewish state will cease to be a democracy, dominating (if it can) an enlarging Arab majority deprived of civic rights.
The third option is the one the Sharon government obviously has chosen, with Bush administration acquiescence. As New York University's Tony Judt puts it, it is for Israel to become "the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project," and thus to become a permanent "international pariah."
The Sharon government is currently conducting new armored raids into Gaza, founding still more colonies and expanding old ones, retaking effective control over the other Palestinian territories and imposing measures of repression clearly intended to provoke the Palestinians to leave, as alternative to permanent domination by armed Jewish colonies and the Israeli Army.
This situation, disastrous in its implications for Israel's moral and political future, is what prompted the former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, to attract enormous international attention in September with his argument that Israel, in terms of its original ideals, is a failed and collapsing society.
Given that President George W. Bush's close advisers include Sharon allies, nothing is going to head off deliberate escalation of the general crisis in the Middle East, from which the Israeli hard-liners expect to profit, but which will be disastrous for the United States.
The Geneva initiative offers a way out - a slim chance. The Israelis themselves have to make this a point of mobilization to save their country. The Israeli majority, one must remember, still favors a just two-state solution if only they can have it. They must be given international support to make this their solution.
European nations should brush aside their historical inhibitions, and American hostility to European interference in the Middle East, and throw their weight behind this plan. It would be the greatest service they could possibly do for Israel and the Palestinians - and, incidentally, for the United States.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune