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Arafat’s death could shift prospects for peace

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A key figure behind a Swiss-backed peace accord for the Middle East says a change in the Palestinian leadership could provide a new chance for peace.

This content was published on November 11, 2004 - 18:00

In an interview with swissinfo, Daniel Levy said Yasser Arafat’s death could put pressure on the Israeli government to take a more moderate approach towards resolving the conflict.

Levy, an Israeli, is one of the initiators of the Geneva Accord, which was launched last December following two years of secret talks between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists and Swiss representatives.

The ambitious accord seeks to define a “final status” solution to the ongoing violence based on a plan for the division of Jerusalem and the creation of a Palestinian state.

It also covers other contentious issues such as the return of Palestinian refugees and the removal of most Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Since its unveiling almost a year ago, it has been met with mixed public and political reactions around the world, especially in the Middle East.

Arafat, who never officially endorsed the idea, is said to have privately supported it while the Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, flatly rejected the accord, saying he saw no negotiating partner in Arafat.

But supporters of the Geneva Accord, including Levy, say Arafat’s passing could provide the Palestinians with the opportunity to present a new partner for peace.

swissinfo: World leaders say they are optimistic that Arafat’s death could mean a new chance for peace in the Middle East. Do you agree?

Daniel Levy: First of all, we have to respect the fact that the Palestinians will need to go through a period of mourning. Arafat was a controversial figure but undoubtedly for the broader Palestinian public, he was a father figure of the national movement and a symbol of the struggle for independence.

Beyond that, it will not be simple to have a smooth, legitimate transition process on the Palestinian side. But should they succeed, then I believe there are prospects for moving beyond the cycles of bloodshed, violence and counter-violence that have characterised the reality here in the region for the past few years.

swissinfo: What do you think the international community and officials from both sides of this conflict could do to help the handover of power in the Palestinian Authority?

D.L.: First of all, this will be a tense, sensitive period. It will be very important not to do anything to escalate the situation.

The government of Israel must provide protection and security for its citizens, but this needs to be done in a way that does not entail the kind of provocative military actions that have characterised some of Israel’s behaviour in the past, including assassinations, incursions and demolitions.

On the Palestinian side, there must be a serious effort to make sure that any move towards a ceasefire is sustainable and that anarchy is prevented.

Beyond that, there are actions that can be taken that will ease the atmosphere in the Palestinian territories and lead to a stable, peaceful transition process. I refer to the easing of closures and checkpoints and letting Palestinian society breathe - which it hasn’t been able to do for the past few years.

Here, the initial sounds are not positive from the Israeli government side.

Finally, I’d say that it will be very important to hear a message from the international community, and this links to the Geneva Initiative, that we have to move ahead now towards ending the conflict.

swissinfo: If the Palestinians are able to present a unified leadership that appears ready to commit to lasting peace and a two-state solution, what impact will this have on the Israeli approach to the conflict?

D.L.: The onus will be on the other side. The excuse or non-excuse of there being no Palestinian partner will go back to the Israeli side and the question will have to be asked whether we have an Israeli partner. This will be the moment of truth for Ariel Sharon. He will have to be clear and go on record and answer questions as to the painful compromises he’s talking about.

If we have a leadership on the Palestinian side that is forthcoming, then the onus will be on the government of Israel and Prime Minister Sharon to state where he stands on issues like Gaza and I’m not sure we’ll like the answers we’ll hear.

swissinfo: Do you see the Geneva Initiative emerging as a template for possible peace negotiations in the coming weeks and months?

D.L.: Yes… there was a difficulty in Israel of convincing people that there was a Palestinian partner and that may be easier now.

The image of Chairman Arafat has not been a positive one in Israel. It was not easy trying to convince people that one could go back to negotiations while Arafat was the leader.

In that respect, and without in any way diminishing the genuine sense of loss on the Palestinian side, the new beginning that today heralds will make it easier to convey the message to the Israeli public that there is a Palestinian partner.

On the Palestinian side, it’s not been easy to convince the public either because they have said that in an ideal world, they would accept the parameters for an agreement put down in the Geneva Initiative. But they didn’t know who to talk to about it. All they see is daily destruction.

If both sides now go back to talking and the world encourages talking, then I think we’ll see a groundswell of opinion among both publics that says, ‘We’re sick of this… If we can have a better future, then either our leadership must take us there or our leadership should step aside.’

swissinfo: It’s been nearly a year since the Geneva Initiative was launched. Overall, has it been a flop or a success?

When we took our message to the international community, people were hesitant. They supported the Geneva Initiative, they saw it as being the template but they were hesitant as to whether it would work and I hope that this hesitancy will be more easily put behind us.

The Geneva Initiative can be the final phase of the “road map”… Everyone understands that if we go for a permanent status agreement, it’s going to be more or less the Geneva plan.

There are those on both sides who feel it goes too far and that it’s a zero sum game… But there are some who understand that the only way we’re going to have peace and guarantee a future is through a win-win situation and that’s what Geneva symbolises and represents.

swissinfo: Switzerland has been a major supporter of this initiative. Has the Swiss government expressed interest in helping to put the Geneva Accord back in the spotlight as a solution for the future?

D.L.: We’re in regular contact with the Swiss government, which has been there alongside us all the way and they’ve been working throughout this year to keep the message of the Geneva Initiative out there.

Switzerland took the courageous step of supporting a very ambitious, far-reaching, civil society initiative and they’re going to continue to promote that.

We think that the kind of support and commitment that we’ve had from the Swiss government has helped keep the Geneva plan as a key reference point in resolving this conflict and the time may now be coming for it to move centre stage again.

I’m sure the Swiss government will be there at our side in promoting and pushing the Geneva Initiative even further.

swissinfo-interview: Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

Switzerland has supported the Geneva Accord both logistically and financially over the past three years.

The initiative was brokered during two years of secret talks.

It outlines a plan for the division of Jerusalem and the creation of a Palestinian state, and covers the issues of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.

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