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Yossi Beilin speaking at Brit Tzedek's National Advocacy Days in Washington D.C.
News and Opinion

Brit Tzedek's National Advocacy Days
Keynote presentation.

-- Yossi Beilin

The following is a transcript of the keynote presentation delivered at the opening of Brit Tzedek’s National Advocacy Days on June 22, 2008, at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC. Special thanks to the Foundation for Middle East Peace for making this event possible.

Thank you for being here. The idea of a grassroots organization which is ready to go to Washington, talk to legislators, and say that support for Israel doesn't mean being a likudnik is very important to me. It is possible to talk to Congressmen, senators, and staff and tell them the truth--that the voice of extremism is a very small one within American Jewry.

The Bush administration is still saying it wants to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of 2008. The Israeli Prime Minister says, "I will do my best to finish the job by the end of this year." So don't forget 2008. We are still not in 2009. Every day counts. The ceasefire with Hamas is a very important development. Let's use this time productively. If we abuse the cease-fire, if we think that because rockets are not shot at us, we only need to deal with other things, we may pay a very high price.

We must learn the lessons of the War of Attrition between 1967 and 1970. Daily Israelis saw pictures of dead and wounded soldiers... and the press was highly critical of then Prime Minister Golda Meir for the war. Because of internal and American pressure, Israel agreed to a ceasefire on August 4, 1970. And in one moment, all the tension ceased. People were happy. And then began three years of total silence. Israel began new settlements in the territories. These were the worst years of my life.

Because of the big victory in ’67 and the silence after ’70, we could actually do whatever we wanted. We took the ceasefire for granted, rather than negotiating for peace with the Palestinians, the Egyptians, and the Arabs. On February 9th of that year, the UN ambassador suggested a peace agreement to Golda Meir and President Sadat, which was almost verbatim that of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace agreement of 1978. Sadat accepted it, and the Israeli government rejected it.

What Americans have to do right now is to intensify negotiations with the PLO in order to find a resolution to the conflict. It’s easy to deceive ourselves and say, “there are economic problems, social problems, investigations. We cannot deal with the peace process.” I think there is a unique opportunity right now. It will be difficult for Israel to find a better partner than Mahmoud Abbas. It is difficult to find anybody who is as committed to peace as he is, as committed to nonviolence as he is. In spite of all his faults, he is a unique, proud nationalist Palestinian who understands that the future of Palestine is totally tied in with the future of Israel.

On the Israeli side, the people who are now in leadership, the people who are in this strange coalition of Kadima, are former likudniks who have debated against us for the past forty years on TV, on the radio, wherever there was an opportunity to debate. I do hope that with this new government, negotiations will be possible.

The internal investigations into corruption charges against Ehud Olmert pose a great cloud, which is hovering above us. They should be resolved, but whoever replaces Olmert will be from the same group, which has had a change of heart in recent years.

When we suggested the Geneva Initiative, it was not because we believed that the Geneva Initiative was the only solution. It is not the only solution. There are many other ideas. What we wanted to prove in 2003 was that if the two camps were ready to sit together and talk seriously, there is a solution for all outstanding issues, which had been considered unsolvable.

Some say that we need some years to solve all this. The problem today is not how to resolve the problem. The only problem today is to have enough courage.

Today, Geneva is a reference point for the negotiators. The Israeli negotiators right now are agreeing to the tentative agreements reached at Camp David and Taba. Some say that we need some years to solve all this. The problem today is not how to resolve the problem. The only problem today is to have enough courage. I believe that it is time for direct negotiations.

I find it amusing that people say Bush was the best president for Israel.

I find it amusing that people say Bush was the best president for Israel, yet it was Bush who put pressure on Sharon to include Hamas in the presidential elections. It was very clear to me that the Oslo agreement says that no person or group that was inciting violence could legally participate in democratic elections, and I told this to Sharon. We knew that Hamas could not be a player. They were not at Oslo, and they didn't participate in 1996 in the elections. But the belief was that there was no chance for Hamas to win. But if you are espousing democracy, you may find out that not all of your expectations are fulfilled. This was one of our biggest mistakes. This created a situation where we don't know what we're doing. What are we going to do with Hamas in Gaza?

My message today to the U.S. administration is that you still have time. If after seven years, you realize how big a mistake you have made and what the ramifications are because of your mistake in Iraq, do something. It's not that difficult. An agreement with the PLO can be signed.

I think that an American envoy should be sent to the Middle East right now. Not to visit us, not to see the Kotel. They should stay there and be in charge of the generals. There are three generals, who are working with the Palestinians, who are monitoring the Road Map and they are doing a good job, but somebody should be there, in charge of them. This is my message to the Administration and to the Hill.

I think that we should communicate to the U.S. presidential candidates the threat of doing nothing. If there is no agreement in 2009, there will be violence. The choice is either a peace process or violence.

I think that we should communicate to the U.S. presidential candidates the threat of doing nothing. If there is no agreement in 2009, there will be violence. The choice is either a peace process or violence. Abbas will step down in 2009. I don't know who will be the leader of Israel. I don't know what the situation will be with Hamas. The next president must understand the price for inaction if there is no agreement in 2009.

I was recently asked if I am an optimist. From my point of view, an optimist is someone who believes that if you don't do anything, it will be better. I'm a pessimist, because I think that if we do nothing it will be much worse. Despite my kind of pessimism I still believe we can return to negotiations.

Question and Answer Session

Q: Why do you believe that Barak was not successful in achieving a peace agreement at Camp David in 2000?

A: Maybe Camp David failed because we did not have a proper offer for the Palestinians. No Palestinian leader could have accepted the Israeli proposals of 2000. What should have happened was that talks should have begun with a meeting of the ministers and others to see where there was agreement, followed by a proposal and lastly a summit with Arafat and Barak to reach an agreement. We did it the other way around. We began with a summit of leaders, who had no idea what they could achieve. They failed totally, and only later was there a proposal, and Taba took place too late.

Q: Recently Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has been making statements that he would be willing to consider reconciliation with Hamas. What effect would that have on the peace process?

A: I believe that if Hamas agrees that violence is not the way then it could be possible. But if there is no such agreement, then an agreement between Fatah and Hamas will not be conducive to negotiations. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis will be ready to negotiate with a joint Hamas-Fatah government. Abbas is doing it only because there's a very big chance that nothing will happen with Olmert.

Q: Why is the peace process getting energized in Syria and Gaza right now?

A: Why now? We have exhausted other options. We have had war, an Intifada, we killed each other, we wounded each other. All of these options failed.

Q: I was wondering about your thoughts on a one-state solution, both from a practical as well as a theoretical level?

A: I don't want to deal with the issue of a one-state solution, because it is not a solution for me. The only advantage for me of Israel is that it's a Jewish state. If I'm going to live as a minority, there are other places in the world I'd rather live. There are real dangers facing Israel. There are people who say, what's the big deal? If you are such a progressive and socialist, what's the big deal? They are all human beings, and you should recognize it. I believe this is why I'm fighting for the right to self-determination.

Q: You said that no one other than Abbas would be capable of negotiating with Israelis. I think that there's a widespread belief that Marwan Barghouti could also reach such an agreement if he was released from prison. I'm wondering in the event that we get to the end of 2008, and Abbas carries out his threat to step down, whether Barghouti might be released from prison as momentum to build on?

A: I know Barghouti and he might become president some day, but I beleive that it is too risky to wait and see. I thought that it was wrong to imprison Barghouti, not because he's innocent, but because he's a political leader.

Q: What is the chain of command with regards to the settlements? I presume it moves right up to the Prime Minister.

A: In terms of settlements, the one who decides about settlements in the West Bank is the Minister of Defense. We [The Meretz party] are investing a lot of our time in this game with the settlements. We are publishing all the facts about the housing units, and we are going to the settlements with a very important moratorium. There is a lot of work of my party, but I can tell you, we shouldn't be there.

Q: What are your thoughts about a viable, sustainable Jerusalem?

A: The solution to Jerusalem is that all the Jewish neighborhoods would be in Israel, and all the Arab neighborhoods would be in Palestine. The Kotel and the Wailing Wall will be in Israel and the Temple Mount would be in Palestine. I prefer that the Old City be under international sovereignty.

Q: Certain parties of the government coalition, notably Shas, have opposed negotiations. Have there been any efforts to neutralize that opposition in case there is a final status agreement?

A: Shas is very important, and we are meeting more and more with them. It’s really interesting, because this is not their main issue in Israel. So when we talk, it is very easy to convince them, because they know they are against something, but they don’t know exactly why. If you give them all the information, they say if this is the case, why not. I am quite hopeful about Shas.

Q: It seems to me that Olmert's corruption has been really good for peace, since it has put the media's focus on peace talks with Syria and the cease-fire in Gaza. Is there actually a connection in terms of public image?

A: There are two levels. One is policy and one is political. On the policy level, at any given moment there is one prime minister of Israel. And this prime minister is eligible to sign an agreement and to launch peace. As for politicians, I believe that five investigations are one too many, and this is why Meretz is demanding that Olmert suspend himself, and if he doesn't suspend himself by the end of June, we will support new Kadima leadership, because otherwise, we will hand the government over to the right.

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