Death of Oslo plan a gross exaggeration, Beilin says here

Yossi Beilin, architect of the moribund Oslo accords, isn't ready to take a wrecking ball to the peace process just yet.

A longtime dove, Knesset member and Labor Party insider, Beilin still has hope that Israelis and Palestinians will someday live side by side in peace.

"What is the alternative?" he asks.

Beilin was in San Francisco last week to accept the Brian L. Lurie Award for Israel/Diaspora Relations. Though he's best known for his role with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Beilin has always taken an interest in a wide variety of issues.

In fact, he was the driving force behind Israel's popular Birthright program, which over the last few years has financed thousands of trips to Israel for young diaspora Jews.

Hence the award.

But it doesn't take much prodding to get Beilin animated about issues of war and peace. Of course, with pundits and armchair prime ministers shrieking "Oslo is dead" every 20 minutes, Beilin often finds himself a bit exasperated these days.

"Usually when someone dies, it's not announced every day," says Beilin with a puckish half-smile. "There's an announcement, a funeral, and after a year everyone forgets about it. In our case, every day people are announcing it is dead, so this is the only proof that apparently it is alive."

Actually, with the war in Iraq considered a resounding success in some quarters, Beilin feels these may be auspicious times for peace in the region.

"A world without Saddam [Hussein] is a much better world for us," he says. The war "will have an immediate impact on the security of Israel, mostly on the eastern front. For years, it was important to keep the Jordan Valley in order to defend ourselves from attacks from the east. What is the east today? Jordan, with which we have peace, and Iraq, which is now American!"

On the other hand, Beilin acknowledges there are no guarantees. True, if Arab governments now see that the United States is no paper tiger, they may be motivated to make the necessary internal changes favorable to democratization.

But if the Arab world views America as in the business of simply replacing regimes it doesn't like, then, says Beilin, "you will see more hatred towards our states, since Israel is so connected to the USA, both in reality and myth. Those who like to burn our flags may do it more intensely."

Perhaps anticipating that scenario, the Bush administration along with other members of the so-called Quartet (the United Nations, European Union and Russia) have indicated they will now more aggressively pursue their vaunted "road map" to peace.

As for Beilin, the road map inspires an unenthusiastic thumb sideways.

"The bad thing about the road map is it is another interim agreement," he says, adding that Oslo also offered an interim solution. "That was a big mistake because it gave extremist groups the power to talk people out of a permanent solution. What we have to do is try to finish the job."

For Beilin, if the road map is the only game in town, he's ready to play. But the core issues still have to be addressed. As he sees it, the central problem remains: Palestinians don't like the idea of a provisional Palestinian state, and the Sharon government doesn't like the idea of a permanent Palestinian state.

Why? "Sharon is afraid of the permanent solution," says Beilin, "because he understands that if he goes for it, he pays the price for it: that is, pre-1967 borders, the possible division of Jerusalem and other things."

So where does that leave the parties now? Beilin is certain the Palestinians will not renounce the "right of return" (permitting Arab refugees from 1948 to return to Israel proper) for a provisional state. But, he says, "they will have to do it for a permanent state. Israel cannot accept a permanent Palestinian state with a right of return. So I believe the best thing would be to return to the negotiating table for a permanent solution as soon as possible."

As for his former Oslo negotiating partner Mahmoud Abbas having recently been named prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Beilin isn't exactly breaking out the champagne.

"He leads a body which is very vague and very decentralized," says Beilin, "with no law and order. In order for him to succeed, it's not enough that he renounce terrorism."

In fact, Beilin chastises his own country for having effectively destroyed the Palestinian Authority while leaving openly terrorist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad relatively intact.

"Having [Abbas] there is not enough if there is no will to help the Palestinians rehabilitate their infrastructure," says Beilin. "I don't think Sharon is in the mood to do that, because it means rebuilding the jails, the garrisons and the police…If they do, then we may have a partner; if they don't, then [Abbas] is doomed."

Despite his excessively analytical mind, Beilin still has the soft heart of a true political dove. "People ask me if I think the Arabs are trustworthy," he says. "We're speaking about human beings. It is almost racist to speak of whether you can trust Palestinians or trust Indians or trust Norwegians."

So Beilin stands ready to make peace, anywhere anytime.

"I'm very optimistic. I know we don't have a better choice than to make peace."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.