What the Middle East needs, we are told, is democracy. Even George Bush seems convinced that after “60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East”, democracy is an idea whose time has come.
The problem is that, having rode in on the back of a tank, democracy does not seem to have much time to discuss things with us. America’s man in Iraq, Paul Bremer, knows that his masters would like to wind up their occupation of Iraq before presidential election time. So he hatched a plan for “indirect elections” and partial consultation in a “town hall” format so that an Iraqi government could be agreed upon post-haste.
This week that plan hit an obstacle in the form of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who said that the only acceptable government was one directly elected by all the Iraqi people. That certainly sounds very democratic. But the Americans complain it will take too much time. Whose clock are we on, one wonders?
Sistani’s aides explained the delay in his objections being voiced by saying that the American plan had been “misrepresented by whoever saw him” and that until recently the ayatollah did not have an Arabic version of it.
Those of us who have, in recent weeks, been asked for our stance on the Geneva Accord can sympathise with his predicament. A thousand accounts of the accord have preceded it from every point in the political spectrum, not to mention the elaborate sound-and-light show in Geneva itself, with a cast including Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and even Richard Dreyfuss.
We have learnt to be wary of stage-managed productions, from Clinton, Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 to Bush, Sharon and Abu Mazen in Aqaba in 2003. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians are being killed and maimed every day. Time is of the essence. But time should not be used to dictate terms, as it was by an anxious Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton at Camp David three years ago.
Looking at the Geneva Accord today, it is clear that we are not the only ones who need time. It is not a deal that awaits only our signature. The document is incomplete: every time a genuinely difficult issue is broached, we are eventually referred to Annex X, which is clearly not one annex but several, each of them awaiting a number of its own and yet more talks to determine its contents.
We are told that a copy of the accord in its present form has reached every household in Israel. For those of us chasing it on the internet, other problems present themselves: the numbering of the clauses can be highly confusing, especially when one is scrolling up and down rather than turning pages; the maps seem to be available only in Hebrew.
But to read what is there is to study a set of possibilities, a detailed vision of the kind that the Bush White House in particular seems unable or unwilling to present.
There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect document. Yet the Geneva Accord takes on board the long-standing demand for a multi-national force to separate Israelis and Palestinians and posits a number of mechanisms for accountability that would not rest wholly in the hands of Israel. A central flaw of Oslo - the extent to which Israel decided when enough progress was being made and when all progress should be suspended - is recognised.
Yet the rights of those Palestinians who migrated into Israel to earn their living and would hope to do so again are nowhere addressed. The accord goes into great detail about the road between Gaza and the West Bank, but says nothing about this human bridge that links Israel to the territories it currently occupies and would neighbour.
It would be comforting to imagine that a recognised Palestinian state would be a sufficient guarantor of migrant worker’s rights. In practice, however, as every page of the accord makes clear, mutuality and reciprocity are essentials of peace. And so Israel too must be prepared to stand up for and codify Palestinian rights.
Where the accord talks of Israel’s Jewish character, once again we have grounds for concern. When a homeland for the Jewish people was first seriously spoken of in the early years of the 20th century, Jews in Britain were concerned that their existing citizenship might somehow be compromised in its creation. The creation of a Palestinian homeland cannot and must not be allowed to compromise the status of Palestinians who are citizens of Israel or Jordan or any other country - regardless of the demographic situations in those countries.
As an individual Palestinian, I saw things in the accord that made me smile, not least this in the section on refugees:
Priority in all the above shall be accorded to the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon.
I cannot forget the outrage and shame that I felt when these same refugees - the most precarious and put-upon of our people - were completely forgotten and omitted in the high-sounding declarations of Oslo. To see them acknowledged in this way, even in an accord that binds no one and has not even been signed by its authors, is moving.
Yet there are other passages that upset and angered me. For example:
(b) Training i. The Israeli Air Force shall be entitled to use the Palestinian sovereign airspace for training purposes in accordance with Annex X, which shall be based on rules pertaining to IAF use of Israeli airspace.
I do not see how any Palestinian who lived under the occupation of the West Bank or Gaza Strip, or who endured the invasion of Lebanon, can be expected to sit comfortably while an Israeli Air Force fighter passes overhead. The IAF have arrangements that allow them to use Turkish airspace for training. If those arrangements stand, why should Palestinians be asked to put up with such a condition? If not, then why should we accept what a well-established state does not?
Other parts of the document can, on the face of it, seem absurd:
(g) Color-Coding of the Old City A visible color-coding scheme shall be used in the Old City to denote the sovereign areas of the respective Parties.
Yet is this colour-coded Jerusalem truly more absurd than an authority with no authority, or a man tasked with fighting terrorism while his own population are terrorised for harvesting olives on their own land, or people in a “seam zone” who must apply for the right to live in their own homes, or innocent people being killed every day in the name of “security”? I think not.
What struck me in the end, however, was this - that I am only one Palestinian. And if democracy is an idea whose time has come, then the Geneva Accord cannot take precedence over it.
This is already true from an Israeli perspective - Yossi Beilin knows that his accord is going nowhere unless he can persuade the people of Israel to vote for it, and that is no small task for a man who represents only one faction (and not the prevailing faction) in a beleaguered and electorally moribund opposition.
What Ayatollah Sistani says he wants for Iraqis is what we must want for Palestinians. After almost a century of agreements min fawq, it is time for an agreement that is ratified (and indeed amended) min tahit. And as Helena Cobban wrote recently in the Christian Science Monitor: To have genuine elections - whether in Iraq or the West Bank - people need freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of association. Those are freedoms we should all support. They are quite incompatible with get-tough military occupation.
Who can say ‘yes’ to the Geneva Accord? Only a Palestinian people who are able to have their say. At present, those who support and oppose the accord are reduced to petitioning, effigy-burning and brandishing their respective credentials. And as Khalil Shikaki found when he attempted to poll Palestinians on the right of return, some of our own people feel that such attempts to find out what we think should be forcibly disrupted.
More than ever we must prepare to stand up and be counted, literally. For until we are able to vote on this accord, it is simply another imposition. And Israelis must prepare too: for until the conditions exist whereby our people can vote and campaign and visit one another in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, no one can say a definitive ‘yes’ to this accord. And that means that Israelis who support the accord must also reject the wall.
People will remind us that the Zionists, the great winners of the last 100 years, accepted less than they actually wanted in 1947 and went on to get more. They might also remind us that the Zionists did not conduct plebiscites on partition.
It may be that in accepting a small and flawed state now we will provide a platform for the kind of state we wish to see in the future. But I do not believe we should seek to emulate the Zionists in bypassing our people to do backroom deals, for we have no desire to become their mirror image.
To Yossi Beilin and our brother Yasser Abed Rabbo, we can say this: we support the Geneva Accord in that we support talking and oppose killing and destruction. Those who oppose the accord should spell out their alternatives and be given a respectful hearing. But nothing can be agreed upon without the consent of those who hold the keys and the deeds. Richard Dreyfuss and a galaxy of stars are not going to reel in the big fish called Peace. For that, we are going to need a bigger boat, one that has our enfranchised people on board.
Maher Mughrabi is a Palestinian writer and journalist born in Britain and currently living in Melbourne, Australia. More information from the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (Australia).