Amidst the carnage, a plan that shows a Middle East peace deal can be done

While the world-weary dismissal of the Geneva peace accord may be understandable, it is also dangerously wrong
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Three Americans are killed when Palestinian militants use a huge bomb to blow up their Cherokee jeep in Gaza. Another victim of the Haifa suicide bomb 13 days ago dies, bringing to 21 the total killed in the atrocity committed by a Palestinian female law graduate. That was yesterday, just 24 hours after Israeli tanks entered again the Rafah refugee camp, where a few days earlier the army flattened 100 houses, making some 2,000 people homeless, and killing eight Palestinians, including two children.

Three Americans are killed when Palestinian militants use a huge bomb to blow up their Cherokee jeep in Gaza. Another victim of the Haifa suicide bomb 13 days ago dies, bringing to 21 the total killed in the atrocity committed by a Palestinian female law graduate. That was yesterday, just 24 hours after Israeli tanks entered again the Rafah refugee camp, where a few days earlier the army flattened 100 houses, making some 2,000 people homeless, and killing eight Palestinians, including two children.

In such circumstances it seems positively indecent to talk of peace. What is the point of sketching out the terms of a final settlement when events in the real world, as opposed to the rarefied and benign atmosphere of a Swiss-sponsored dialogue between a few Palestinians and Israeli leftists, hourly mock the idea that such a settlement is achievable?

This is a wholly understandable, and quite widespread, reaction to the Geneva peace accords unveiled by a group of Israeli opposition politicians and intellectuals, including the country's best-known writer, Amos Oz, on the one hand, and Palestinian ex-ministers on the other. You only have look at the ferocious reaction to the new accord by senior members of the Israeli government, from Ariel Sharon down - not to mention many hope-immune ordinary Palestinians - to realise that it is hardly going to herald some sudden new dawn after three years of lethal violence.

But while the world-weary dismissal of the idea that any hopes can be vested in the new accord may be understandable, it is also dangerously wrong. It isn't only that the still sketchy accord demonstrates that there are interlocutors on the Palestinian side with whom Israelis can enter into sensible negotiations. Or that the Israeli left, after a period of relentless marginalisation, has forced itself into the centre of the country's debate in a way not even its protagonists imagined. Or even that, for the first time explicitly, serious Palestinians have in effect renounced the right of return for refugees who fled or were forced out of their homes in 1948, hitherto one of the most neuralgic issues for Israelis. It's rather that in focusing minds once again on what the shape of a just settlement might look like, the Geneva team have filled a political vacuum left by the Likud government's view that meaningful negotiations can only follow the eradication of militant violence by military means.

Given the brutality with which the proposals have been brushed aside not only by the Sharon government but by the former Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak, it is perhaps easy to understand why British officials should have been swiftly emphatic in denying a story in Al Quds, the Arabic east Jerusalem newspaper. The piece claimed that many of the principles were promoted with Tony Blair's blessing at a meeting in Britain six months ago convened by his special envoy Lord Levy between two of the accord's protagonists, the former Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and the left-wing former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin.

While Mr Beilin did brief Downing Street on the process some months ago, the firm denials that the UK played any part in the drafting of the accord may well be true. It was nevertheless striking yesterday that ranking British government officials went out of their way in private not to dismiss the accord in the way the Israeli government - and albeit more circumspectly - the US has. Instead officials, regarding the explicit concession on right of return as significant, pointed out that many of the proposals resembled ones that were discussed at Taba at the end of the abortive Clinton process three years ago. They suggested that it could have an impact on public opinion, which has been infused with a growing sense of despair on the Israeli and Palestinian side.

It's the right reaction. For a start, the document does involve pragmatic and painful concessions on both sides. A quid pro quo, for example, of abandonment of the right of return involves Palestinian authority over the old city of Jerusalem, with the exception of the Wailing Wall. Some of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank would be left intact including the very large one of Maíale Adumim. But occupation of such settlements on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border would be matched by Palestinian acquisition of land on the Israeli side of the frontier with Gaza. And so on.

All this fulfils several purposes. One is to remind the Israeli government that the 1967 border cannot in justice be redrawn, which virtually all Palestinians believe Sharon is trying to do with the route of his new security fence, slicing off chunks of Palestinian land into Israel, dividing Arab villages and cutting off Palestinian farmers from their olive groves and pastures.

But an even larger one is this. Realistically, the Israeli protagonists in the talks have extracted most of the maximum concessions that are ever going to be available from the Palestinians if the two-state solution is to be obtained. And that in itself poses a stark dilemma, not often spoken about but recognised by many Israelis. This concerns whether the Jewish state, in the very long term, is going to be preserved as it surely must be if peace and stability is going to prevail in their children's lifetime, let alone their own.

You don't have to talk to many Palestinian intellectuals for long to be aware of a growing tendencyto say: maybe the two-state solution along 1967 borders is never going to happen. Maybe we should let them build their settlements, and then disband the Palestinian Authority, and sit it out for a generation. Then demography will make us, the Palestinians, the majority. And then the world will see that only a unitary multinational state in which every citizen has an equal vote will be the answer.

For most - though not all - Palestinians this is a one-state solution born of despair. It almost certainly means many more years of bloodshed, indignity and economic deprivation. It isn't - so the Geneva negotiators believe, surely rightly - what the majority of Palestinians, any more than Israelis, want. And it would mean the end of the Jewish state, as many Israelis, particularly on the left, realise. That's another reason why for Israelis and Palestinians this graphic demonstration that there is another, achievable way, matters so much.

This accord doesn't, of course, remotely solve anything on its own. As one senior British diplomat put it yesterday: "This is pretty much where we know we all have to get to. The problem is getting there." It still looks worryingly unlikely that real progress will come soon, at least before the US elections next year. But as Oz told The Independent's Jerusalem correspondent Justin Huggler on Tuesday: "All we want to do is create a clear perception in public opinion that the real battle is not between Israelis and Palestinians but between people who are willing to accept a pragmatic compromise and people on both sides who are not willing to accept that." Amid all the bleakness, there could not be a better time to do just that.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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