A few hundred dignitaries will assemble today in Geneva for a peace ceremony between Israelis and Palestinians. A rare and delightful sight, no doubt, after three years of relentless and futile bloodshed. But is this also the turning point in the Middle East peace process?
This latest peace initiative, devised and pursued by a group of Israelis and Palestinians under the auspices of the Swiss government, could not present itself at a more opportune moment. It is the end of Ariel Sharon's third year in office and Israel's standing has taken a turn for the worse. Domestically, his election promises for "peace and security" were exposed as empty slogans, the economy is weak and unemployment has reached new heights. Abroad, Israel's pariah status is spreading. The question of whether its establishment was a mistake has become a popular theme in symposiums. Surveys in Europe show that
Israel is perceived as a threat to world peace - the root of the problem.
Israel's worst achievement in the current conflict is the almost complete devastation of the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat was sidelined and his security apparatus considerably weakened. With no credible, authoritative interlocutor in sight, Israel was left without a main point of contact. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Israel can direct its grievances to Damascus. The result: near anarchy in the Palestinian territories, where fragmented cells of terrorist groups call the shots and can easily wreck any delicate ceasefire agreement. Thus, both populations are trapped in a vicious, frustrating circle. The Palestinians are led by an inept regime and are living under a merciless Israeli occupation that, in turn, is corrupting and undermining its own core values and ethics.
This sordid state of affairs has led to an unprecedented outcry against Sharon's stagnant approach. Four former chiefs of the Shin Bet security service warned that Israel was on the verge of self-destruction. For the first time in months, Sharon - known in Israel as Arik - shows clear signs of discomfort.
"Sharon is wavering in his decision-making along two sets of beliefs," says a former Likud minister who held a senior post in his first government. "One reflects the old Arik, the hero general of 1967 and 1973, who despises Arabs and treats them with suspicion and contempt; and [the other] the new Arik, the elder statesman, prime minister who needs to employ longer-term, realpolitik considerations. Sharon is torn between these irreconcilable approaches, and this results in diplomatic inaction."
Enter former ministers Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the architects of the Geneva accord. The diplomatic impasse of the past few months, with the collapse of Abu Mazen's government and the stalled implementation of the road map, played straight into their hands.
The achievements of Beilin and the Israeli team in formulating the accord are dramatic: Palestinian recognition of the right of the Jewish people to a state; explicit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall; implied recognition of the Jewish people's affiliation with the Temple Mount; and recognition of the right of about 250,000 Israelis to live beyond the green line.
Judging by the protests on the Palestinian side, and the fact that several Palestinian representatives pulled out from the ceremony at the last minute, it seems that some feel the concessions are too much to swallow. However, while the initiative aspires to deliver a solution to a bitterly contested conflict, it also risks achieving precisely the opposite, at least in Israel.
Unlike other peace initiatives - like the People's Voice initiative of Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon, which is based on broad and relatively simple principles - the Geneva accord is complicated and overarching, undertaken by individuals as a private initiative.
While the authors claim the proposal is based on the Clinton plan discussed at the Camp David and Sharm el-Sheikh summits three years ago, crucial elements in the accord clearly deviate from Clinton's formulas. These include the sovereignty over Temple Mount in Jerusalem; the percentage of territorial swaps; and the principles governing the solution to the Palestinians' right of return, including the number of refugees to be absorbed in Israel proper. A careful comparison would point out that Israel will lose out if it implements the Geneva accord.
Additionally, the accord may even ignite another point of contention - namely the evaluation and compensation of Palestinian property left behind in 1948 that can now be found in what is regarded as Israel proper. This issue could lead to endless claims and counter-claims, and fuel fresh resentment and bickering.
While Israel is required to be involved in this compensation process, the issue of compensating Jewish refugees who were forced to flee their Arab homelands was not discussed. How the properties will be valued is unclear. No doubt the value of Palestinian possessions left in Israel has increased dramatically over the years, and might be worth billions of dollars. Who will foot the bill?
Another question mark hovers over the initiative's base of support. A poll commissioned by an Israeli newspaper found that about 39% of Israelis back the accord. However, apart from unreserved support from the fringe of the left in Israel, all the main parties - from the center-left to the right - were united in their objection. Surprisingly, even the Labour party - the main opposition party and a traditional champion of the peace camp - distanced itself. The party's leaders have rejected or ignored it altogether, dismissing it as an academic exercise that will serve the Palestinians in future official negotiations.
The wealth of detail in the peace initiative provided ample fuel for its critics. Reports in the Israeli media were dominated by accusations aimed at vilifying the Israeli delegation. Some critics suggest that self-serving interests are at play. Beilin, for example, may be trying to pave his way back into mainstream politics after his failure to win a seat in the latest Knesset elections. The publicity and international status could certainly help him in garnering support.
However, despite its flaws, the Geneva accord has succeeded in reigniting the political scene in Israel, and has prompted others to launch their own peace plans - including Sharon's latest promises of major concessions to the Palestinians. One can only hope that a similar process will be followed on the Palestinian side. Both sides have been flirting for far too long with policies that put them on a road to an abyss.
· Sharon Sadeh is the EU and UK affairs correspondent for the Ha'aretz newspaper
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003