Yossi Beilin, from Fresh Air interview,
as described by Jon Wiener, in The Nation
Israel's military defeat in Lebanon has created new
opportunities for peace -- that's what Israeli Knesset
member and peace movement leader Yossi Beilin told Terry
Gross on the NPR show "Fresh Air" on August 23. Beilin,
chairman of the left-wing Meretz party, has served in
different Labor governments, and was one of the
architects of the 1991 Oslo Accords and the 2003 Geneva
The Israeli government and military today are facing
popular anger and strong criticism over their failures
in Lebanon. Beilen recalled that the government faced
similar criticism after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. But
that war, he pointed out, opened the way to a historic
peace treaty with Egypt -- the Camp David agreement of
1978 -- and a peace between the two countries that
continues to this day.
That treaty was possible, Beilin argued, because after
1973 Egypt "felt there was there was a kind of symmetry"
with the Israeli military, rather than feeling "they had
been totally defeated," which had been the case with the
But, Terry Gross asked, who should Israel negotiate
with? Hamas and Hezbollah don't recognize Israel or its
right to exist. "I would negotiate with everybody who is
ready to negotiate with me," Beilin replied. "Neither
Hezbollah nor Hamas is ready to negotiate with Israel,
which leaves us with the government of Lebanon, with
Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and with
the Syrian government. All of them are speaking about an
agreement with Israel." He suggested convening an
international conference with those participants.
But withdrawing from Lebanon, and then withdrawing from
Gaza, did not bring peace. Haven't these experiences
turned Israeli public opinion against peace
negotiations? "I don't think so," Beilin replied. What
Israelis have lost faith in is unilateral withdrawals.
In contrast to the "non-agreements" around the
withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, "We have had a peace
agreement with Egypt since ‘75, with Jordan since ‘94,
and these are big achievements," he said. "People are
disenchanted about unilateralism. . . . They understand
now that peace agreements do not have substitutes."
The crucial example: Syria. It's possible that the
entire Lebanon war, and the arming of Hezbollah, could
have been avoided if Israel had signed a peace treaty
with Syria in 1999 -- "and paid the price of the Golan
Heights to have this peace." That would have had "a huge
impact on Lebanon," which Syria has more or less
controlled. Israel at that point had a Labor government
headed by Ehud Barak; at the end of 1999, he decided not
to sign a peace treaty with Syria, and instead to
withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally. The consequences of
those decisions are now clear.
But when Hamas controls a majority of seats in the
Palestinian legislature, and when Hamas doesn't
recognize Israel or its right to exist, how can you have
a negotiated peace with the Palestinians? "Here the
procedure is quite clear," Beilin replied. "Hamas is
telling the world that it is ready for Mahmoud Abbas to
negotiate with Israel. Once he ends his negotiations, he
will have to bring that agreement either to a referendum
or to a meeting of the Palestinian national council. If
there is a majority for such an agreement, it will
become a reality. . . . This is the way Hamas can stick
to its ideology, but enable others to negotiate." In the
end, the leaders of Hamas "will not be the ones to shake
our hands, but they will benefit from an agreement with
But hasn't the war strengthened the determination of
Hamas and Hezbollah to seek the destruction of Israel?
Beilin insisted that "There is a big difference between
the two groups. Hezbollah is not a potential partner."
Hamas is different, and "at the end of the day, if Hamas
gives Mahmoud Abbas the mandate to negotiate, there is a
possibility of getting an agreement. This is not the
situation with Hezbollah."
But hasn't the rise of Islamic extremism throughout the
region reduced the chances for a negotiated peace? "I
would like to reject the idea that what we have is a war
of civilizations or war of religions," Beilin said.
"Everywhere you have extremists, but also moderate
people and pragmatic people. Wisdom also requires
creating the coalition of sanity, those people who want
to live and want their kids to live. These are the
The strategic key for Israel, he said, is "to put an end
to the war situation in the inner circle" -- Israel,
Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians --
"so that war here will not create a pretext for those
who want to fight forever." Beilin gave credit for that
idea to Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was
assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli fanatic who opposed
his signing the Oslo Acccords. Rabin "wanted peace in
the inner circle before Iran became a nuclear power, and
before the hatred of Israel in the Arab world would make
anyone who made peace with us be seen as a traitor. He
was right." But "it's still not too late."
Finally Terry Gross asked Yossi Beilin how optimistic he
was feeling now. After a pause, he said, "I believe
there is an opening which wasn't there before. The
question is whether it is big enough to change the
situation. . . . It is more than a matter of optimism.
It is a matter of creativity, of doing something." Here
he refused to call himself an optimist, which he defined
as a person "who believes that the situation will be
better tomorrow." Instead, he concluded, "I believe it
is my task to make it so."