PIJ: You have put forward a proposal for breaking the impasse and reviving the peace process. Can you describe the essence of the proposal?

Yossi Beilin: The proposal is only a procedural one and is not meant to compete with any substantial plan in the market or the Geneva Initiative. When we came out with the Geneva Initiative in December 2003, one of the main questions asked by people like [then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin] Powell and [Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot] Abrams and others in Europe was: How do you get there? With the Geneva Initiative we just wanted to prove that one can get a compromise on the outstanding issues. We said nothing about procedures, intentionally, and when asked about it, we said there is the Road Map - which had been accepted then by both sides - and our suggestion fits into the third part of the Road Map, which is the permanent agreement.

What's happened since is that the Road Map has become a trap more than anything else, mainly because the first stage, which was accepted as a kind of pre-condition for the second stage, has not been implemented by either side. Each side blames the other, and it makes it easier for both parties to do nothing. So my suggestion is to skip the first stage. Israel apparently is not going to dismantle the settlements, unauthorized or authorized, regretfully; and the Palestinians are not going to disarm the militias. So I suggested going to the second stage and trying to implement the first stage during the implementation of the second. Now, in the second phase, there is the option of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. This was custom-made for [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, who didn't want a permanent solution and hoped to stay in the interim stage for a very long while - he spoke publicly of 15 years. This was precisely what the Palestinians feared: that once they agreed to a Palestinian state with provisional borders, it would become a kind of border dispute, rather than a national conflict. And then the world would lose interest and nobody would push towards the third stage. This is why [President] Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) said all the time that he would like to go directly to the third stage. This is impossible, apparently. I would like to go immediately to the third phase, too, but the Israeli government is not ready for it, and I don't know about the Americans.
So there is a need for something in-between that would make it easier to get to the third stage. Now [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert shelved his unilateral convergence plan, but apparently he still believes in something similar. Abu Mazen is emphasizing that in the Road Map the provisional state is an option, not a must. We still owe the Palestinians the third redeployment of the Oslo agreement, which should be a significant withdrawal from the West Bank, in which the Palestinian Authority will be extended. So we have to get to the second phase by withdrawing from a very significant part of the West Bank - I cannot refer to a specific percentage, but if Olmert spoke of 90% unilaterally, 90% is reasonable. The parties will have to decide what they should call it, although from my point of view, it is marginal whether they call it an agreed-upon convergence plan, the third phase of Oslo or the second phase of the Road Map. And the Palestinians should decide if they prefer to extend the Palestinian Authority or to have a Palestinian state with provisional borders. What might sweeten the latter idea is a decision on the principles for the permanent agreement that contains a solution for Jerusalem, refugees and all the outstanding issues - which will be much more than kalam fadi (empty words), with a sentence saying that we have to solve this problem by mutual consent, etc.
The withdrawal and dismantling of the settlements should take about two years, and no later than the end of the withdrawal, should the negotiations on the permanent talks begin, so that by 2010 we will finish the job and have a permanent agreement. This is my idea, and generally speaking, it has been accepted. I talked about it with Abu Mazen and many leaders in the world, [then-UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan and [Italian Prime Minister Romano] Prodi and foreign ministers all over Europe …

… and the Israeli government?

… and the Israeli government, of course.

The response was also positive?

Very positive, although there is no commitment from anybody. But unlike Geneva, which was very controversial, this idea was not as controversial, and those with whom I spoke in the Cabinet were very positive and interested, so I think something like this is feasible. And maybe by chance and maybe not by chance, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's ideas are very similar.

Let's look at the different components of the international community. First and foremost the United States: They are obviously a key factor, and there is the impression that something may be changing there, given the mid-term elections, the Iraq Study Group report and the mess that the U.S. is in Iraq - that they may want to have progress in this area. What is your impression about the possibility that the Americans would become more engaged?

I'm very disappointed by U.S. policy over the last six years. It has been a march of folly in Israel, the Middle East and everywhere else. My expectations are not very high. The only thing that I would like the U.S. to do is not to interfere. If they don't disturb the process, it could go much better. In the meantime, for example, they are very much against negotiations with Syria. All those who don't want to negotiate with Syria, who don't want to give up the Golan Heights, are using the U.S. as a pretext for not doing it, and the U.S. doesn't do anything to deny this. In informal talks they are saying we should not talk to the Syrians.

Why should the U.S. talk with Syria?

They should do whatever they want; I'm not going to educate the U.S. But I want to talk with Syria, because they are my enemies and my neighbors, and they hold many keys; I believe that if we make peace with Syria, then the Middle East will change. The Americans don't understand that having talks with Syria and maybe peace with Syria will have an impact on the Syrian relationship with Iran and on the position of Iran in the Middle East. I only want peace for myself, and they are preventing it right now.
Also regarding the Palestinians, their rigid positions vis-à-vis the government of Hamas and other things are mistaken. I'm all for pre-conditions for official negotiations with a government that doesn't accept the commitments of its predecessors, but with this cumbersome policy of enacting laws against any talks with Hamas, any contact with Hamas, boycotting Hizbullah, Hamas, Syria, they are neutralizing themselves. The Americans have prevented themselves from being mediators in the Middle East in the last six years. Their ability to do something positive here is very, very small. Olmert is not exactly running towards peace, but I believe they are restraining even him. They forced Sharon to accept Hamas as a legitimate party in the elections, which was a mistake and contradicted the Oslo agreements, and they have made so many mistakes that I really don't believe that they can do anything good in the next two years.

Do you think that the Baker-Hamilton recommendations are constructive?

Yes, I do believe that their report is a very important one. I must admit that the analysis is better than the recommendations; some of the recommendations seemed to me quite problematic. Nevertheless, on the issues of the Middle East and Syria, they're right, and those should have been U.S. policy. But I understand that the president has already distanced himself from the report, and I don't believe that he is going to adopt the recommendations.

Let's move over to Europe. Do you believe that the Europeans are capable of acting without the cooperation of the U.S.?

Beilin: It's up to them. If they tie themselves to the U.S., tie their own hands, they won't be able to do anything. The big mistake of the Europeans was to be part of the Quartet.

So you actually think that the Quartet was a mistake?

The Quartet was a huge mistake. In the past they were much more independent in their activities. Now they have this artificial, mutual structure, which Israel never recognized. Sharon and Olmert never met with the Quartet as such and have boycotted the Quartet.

They never met with Quartet Special Envoy James Wolfensohn?

They never met with the Quartet; only with the Americans. And the Quartet even complied with this policy. The Americans are doing nothing, but they are leading the Quartet, so the Quartet never moved. Among the fruits of the Quartet was the Road Map - a very bitter fruit, and it became a trap for all of us. So what I would suggest is that Europe be a little bit more independent. I would say, You tried something in order to be more involved, you were totally misled, you are much less involved than before because of this structure, and either you can really push the other partners of the Quartet to move, or you can break from it. But the current situation is the worst of all worlds.

Two actions by the international community that were welcomed by the Israeli government appear to be possible precedents: United Nations Resolution 1701 and the increased international force, accepted by Israel as a positive idea; and the international role in Gaza. Do you see these as possible precedents which can be transferred to the West Bank?

I hope so. I do believe that 1701 is an important milestone; that the involvement of the world here is positive; and that by being here they have a claim to help us solve the problems between us and the Palestinians, between us and the Syrians. And I would like to see more involvement in the political solution. There is potential for European involvement as donors, as members of UNIFIL, as those who see us as their backyard - for the EU an explosive situation in the Middle East is a real threat. The problem with Europe today is that it is one of the most cumbersome organizations in the world, with 27 members pushing the policy to the lowest common denominator. If you need consensus, you cannot take very bold decisions. Still, Europe has taken very important resolutions lately: vis-à-vis Hamas, to bypass their own conditions by giving the money to the NGOs rather than to the government. I think that European involvement is much more feasible and realistic than American involvement right now.

One of the ideas that have been raised is to have another international conference, in the style of Madrid. Do you think that's constructive?

It is constructive if everybody is ready to participate. My preference is to have a Madrid II, conducive to bilateral talks between Israel and Palestine, meaning the PLO; Israel and Syria; Israel and Lebanon. If it were possible, I would support it wholeheartedly. I don't know whether the Americans are there; I think that France is not there for Syria. So there are some impediments and some obstacles, but ideally this would be the right way to do it. Otherwise, I would like to go for just bilateral talks. It's vital for us to talk to the Syrians, and here, at least some of the Europeans are ready to be involved.
What we have to do is to convince the Palestinians, through the Europeans, to have a unity government. I don't think that Abu Mazen can hold early elections. I don't think we can ignore Hamas now, regretfully. So there should be some kind of unity government of professionals or experts, and this government would mandate Abu Mazen to negotiate with us as the leader of the PLO; we would have an agreement with the PLO; and the government would not prevent a referendum, so that any conclusion of the negotiations between us and the Palestinians would be brought to a referendum. Right now, to negotiate with Abu Mazen personally would be very problematic, if he doesn't have the procedural backing of Hamas for a referendum.

What about the immediate region, our neighbors?

The Iraq Study Group says very clearly that the solution to the problem of the Middle East is the creation of a coalition among the pragmatic Arab states and Israel. This coalition - which I believe is the real future of the region - can be established only if we solve the Palestinian problem. This is another reason why we should solve it soon.

Do you think that the neighboring countries can have a role in moving the process forward?

They can have a role and they do have a role. Their contribution of the Arab Initiative was a very, very constructive one, and it should be now part of any consideration of the continuation of the peace process. We should know, in the backs of our minds, that at the end of the day, all of the Arab countries are ready to normalize relations with Israel. This is not something marginal. What Egypt is doing in Gaza is also very important. I think that today, the Arab moderate countries are more open to being involved with Israeli-Palestinian relations than before, because they understand what all of us understand: that a pragmatic coalition is vital for all of us.

The underlying question concerning the whole process is: Does the solution basically depend upon the two parties - the Israelis and the Palestinians - moving forward, or upon the will and the readiness of the international community to help to move things forward?

I have no doubt about it; it is mainly for the two parties to decide. The others can help, but no more than that. Usually when the two parties were ready to move, they moved, and when one of them was not or both of them were not ready to move, nothing happened. So the role of the world is secondary, but not unimportant. It's very important; sometimes it's almost impossible to finish the job without them. But the world is not going to determine for us whether we're going to go for negotiations or not.

To conclude, when you look at the possibilities, are you optimistic, cautiously optimistic, pessimistic? What is the prognosis?

For me, it was never a question of general optimism or pessimism. The only question was whether we can do something. What is our role? Can we still do something right now? I must say, with the victory of Hamas, I became less optimistic. Many of us were sure that even if Hamas was strengthened, it would not win. And the fact that today there is a Palestinian government that, paralyzed as it is, doesn't recognize Israel, doesn't want to negotiate with us and doesn't believe that peace with us is a possibility is a huge setback. Now, is it the end? It is not the end. I think that the Palestinian people want peace. It is not just a slogan; I see the polls. And the Israeli people would like peace; again, I see the polls. But neither of them believes that it is feasible. The role of people like myself is to bridge this gap between their preference and the feasibility that they attribute to this preference. This is why I am restless. This is why I'm talking to whoever I can in order to promote the ideas and to push for peace.