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'Geneva Accord' Draws Mixed Reactions from Israelis, Palestinians

Reactions to Monday's signing in Geneva of an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace plan are mixed. The initiative, known as the Geneva Accord, is hailed as a ray of hope by many present and former world leaders and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to meet with the plan's architects later this week. But, Israel's government and many conservatives condemn the initiative and play down its importance, while Palestinian militant groups reject the plan and Yasser Arafat seems to be taking a wait and see attitude.

The signing of the Geneva Accord was on the front pages and in the headlines of the Israeli media. Palestinian media paid less attention to the initiative, and published no commentary.

Reactions varied. Israel's English daily, Jerusalem Post, described the peace initiative as a farce, while a front page article in Ha'aretz said it offers a hope for peace.

Palestinian media focused more on daily events, Israeli military raids in the West Bank and opposition to the Geneva initiative.

The Geneva Accord, drawn up after almost three years of secret negotiations between former Israeli and Palestinian officials, moderate politicians and intellectuals is an unofficial plan endorsed neither by the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority. But, its architects say it's a model for any future official agreement because it outlines the compromises needed on the most divisive issues.

At Monday's signing ceremony in Geneva, former Palestinian cabinet minister and co-author of the accord, Yasser Abed Rabbo spoke of a people initiative.

"Today, we are extending our hands in peace," he said. "The Palestinian people want peace, the Israeli people want peace. The world wants peace. Will we allow a few enemies of peace to destroy our dreams?"

Hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and high profile international supporters of the initiative attended the ceremony or sent messages of support. Among them was former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979. He hailed the Geneva Accord as a guide for the future.

"It's unlikely that we shall ever see a more promising foundation for peace," said Mr. Carter.

That's not how Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sees it. During a meeting last week with top Israeli media editors, Mr. Sharon described the Geneva Accord as dangerous and subversive.

He said it is damaging to Israel, and he said only the government can conduct negotiations.

Israeli officials also say the only negotiating plan on the table is the "road map" peace plan, backed by the United States and the international community.

Architects of the Geneva Accord say their plan is not meant to replace the road map, rather to complement it. The road map calls for a two-state solution, an independent Palestinian state by 2005 alongside a secure Israel, all as part of a broader peace deal between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The road map leaves the final details of a peace agreement to be negotiated by the protagonists.

The Geneva Accord, goes further by outlining details of a final agreement on the most contentious issues.

Under the plan, Israel would give up all of the Gaza Strip and almost all of the West Bank and relinquish most of its settlements in Palestinian areas. Some large settlement blocs would remain, however. In exchange for some West Bank land it retains, Israel would give up land in the Negev desert.

The Accord skirts the controversial issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel, but provides Israel with a say over how many refugees, if any, it would take in. The agreement also gives the Palestinians control over the Temple Mount, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, but retains Israeli control over the sacred Western Wall.

Some of the provisions are vehemently opposed by members of both communities. Many Israelis reject giving up land and control of any part of Jerusalem and the holy sites. Many Palestinians reject the idea of giving up the right of return and Palestinians have taken to the streets to protest against the initiative. So far, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has lent support to the accord in principle, but not to the details.

Israeli and Palestinian supporters of the Geneva accord say that, despite opposition, the initiative offers hope that the seemingly endless violence and hatred can be overcome. Akiva Eldar, political commentator for Ha'aretz, says it sends an important message.

"It has been sending a message to the Israeli public, to the Palestinian people and to the international community that there are Israeli and Palestinian partners for peace, that peace is possible," he said.

The authors of the plan say they will now seek support from the broader international community, from leaders in the region and, most importantly, they say, from the Israeli and Palestinian public. They say they hope that increasing grassroots support will, in turn, put pressure on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to engage in serious peace efforts or risk being replaced by those who will.