Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a key architect of Israel’s breakthrough negotiations with the PLO in 1993 at Oslo, urged Palestinian leaders last week to stop insisting that Israel fully implement its most recent agreement with them, the Wye River Accord.
Beilin, a pioneer of numerous peace initiatives with the Palestinians, strongly criticized their rejection of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s call to drop one of Wye’s key requirements: the third of three interim pullbacks from the West Bank prior to resolving final-status issues such as borders and the fate of the West Bank and Gaza.
“I understand Barak, and it’s difficult for me to understand the Palestinians,” Beilin told reporters from the Jewish media during a visit to New York last week. “I’d like them to stretch out their hand and say, we know you, you are the peace lunatics. You paid the price for your position, in the case of one leader, with his life.”
The reference was to Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, who was murdered by an Israeli Jew opposed to his peace moves. Beilin contended that with the June election of a government led by his former aide, Barak, good faith and trust between the two sides should return. Palestinian leaders, he said, should drop the defensive posture that characterized their dealings with Rabin’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Bibi thought Oslo was a huge mistake, if not a crime,” said Beilin, using Netanyahu’s nickname. But the new government, he suggested, was prepared to fully redeem the Palestinians’ hope in Oslo, if they would just move directly to long overdue talks on the territories’ final status.
“The five-year period of the interim agreement is over now,” said Beilin, referring to the phase envisioned under Oslo that stalled in Netanyahu’s tenure. “There is a new government ready to go for peace. It is ready to pay the price for peace because it understands it will get much more than this price. To deal now with the interim status, which is over, is illogical in my view.”
In Israel, Beilin’s statements startled some who view him as a standard-bearer of the doves within Barak’s 2-month-old government. One of his own cabinet colleagues, Industry and Trade Minister Ran Cohen of the Meretz party, characterized Beilin’s words as “a direct return to the former regime,” according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. Cohen called for full implementation of Wye. Attempts at delay would only damage efforts to restore trust, he said.
Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton reportedly has sent Barak a letter pushing for quick implementation of the Wye agreement. According to Haaretz, Beilin heard the same message in meetings with senior administration officials in Washington following his New York visit.
Secretary of State Madeline Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger told him that a quick withdrawal — and a release of security prisoners also seen as part of Wye — was essential to rebuild Palestinian confidence in the peace process, the paper reported.
Barak has stated his readiness to implement the October 1998 agreement fully if the Palestinians insist, but he has warned that this could lead to serious security dangers that could derail the peace process. He is also known to be resistant to ceding land to the Palestinians in advance of the concessions expected in final-status talks.
At his New York press briefing, Beilin, long seen as a liberal iconoclast among Israeli politicians, laid out an ambitious agenda for his new role as Israel’s top law official, but did not restrict himself to this plan.
He spoke of eliminating Israel’s 51-year-old state of emergency laws. Beilin also vowed to develop modern intellectual property law legislation to fend off threatened U.S. sanctions for rampant piracy of CDs, software and other intellectual products. The administration calls Israel among the worst such culprits in the world due to the lack of such laws.
Beilin also voiced his hope that the United States and other countries would move their embassies to Jerusalem, but said he did not realistically expect this until the city’s disputed status was resolved in final-status talks with the Palestinians.
Like the other issues he cited, this one also would be resolved through “normalization,” he said.
“Normalization is the implementation of Zionism,” he said, adding that the peace process was very much part of this.
Also crucial to this process, said Beilin, was eliminating the emergency regulations. Among other things the regulations, in place since the state’s founding amid war in 1948, empower the government to jail people without charge or trial under administrative detention.
After all this time, he said, these regulations are “a very, very problematic stain in our book of laws.”
Beilin said that Israel currently has “about 100” people in prison under administrative detention, some for “four or five years.” This includes 21 Lebanese Shiites kidnapped from their homes by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. They are being held as bargaining chips for Israeli soldiers thought to have been captured by the Shiite guerrilla force Hezbollah.
“Sometimes you get information that a group or a person is preparing some terrorist activity, [but] you don’t have the material to prove it in court because it has not yet happened … The way to prevent it is to put someone like that in jail without due process.”
But, Beilin stressed, “There’s a difference between an urgent need to hold someone who is allegedly planning terrorist activity and someone who is there for six years … without [the government] telling them what the charges are against them. It’s really against all our beliefs.”
Beilin acknowledged that the majority of administrative detainees — 63 currently — are Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza whose fate is beyond his control. They are not held under emergency regulations administered by his ministry but under military orders enforced by the Israeli army in the territories.
But, he said, “For me, it’s the same. It’s the same government. The same Israel. We are in charge in both places.”
To at least free those under his ministry’s authority, Beilin noted, he need only convince the Knesset not to renew the government’s emergency authority. Under legal procedures instituted in 1992, the Knesset must renew that authority every February or it dies.
Beilin said he must find an alternative, more targeted legislation to address the genuine needs of the security agencies before he can hope to get the Knesset to abolish the sweeping emergency laws. Hinting this could be difficult before February, he said, “I may still go there [then] and ask to extend it.”