Secretary of State Colin Powell meets later Friday with the Palestinian and Israeli authors of a unofficial plan for resolving the Middle East conflict. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has voiced opposition to the meeting but U.S. officials say the ad hoc peace effort is a useful exercise.
The Sharon government has made it clear it considers the unofficial "Geneva Initiative" to be harmful if not subversive to Israeli interests. And the Bush administration is approaching the meeting with caution, saying it should not be considered a snub or criticism of Mr. Sharon, and depicting Secretary Powell's participation as merely a "drop by" of a meeting with the Geneva authors by lower-level U.S. officials.
Unveiled last Monday, the initiative led by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo calls for creation of a de-militarized Palestinian state alongside Israel and proposes solutions to the most intractable issues of the peace process.
Among other things, it calls for a Jerusalem under divided authority to be the capital of the two states. It calls for an Israeli withdrawal from, and the uprooting of Jewish settlements in, the Gaza strip and most of the West Bank, and would void the right of Palestinian refugees to return to areas remaining under Israeli jurisdiction.
In U.S. appearances promoting the plan, Mr. Beilin and Mr. Abed Rabo have said their peace formula would complement the international "road map" calling for reciprocal confidence building steps by the two sides leading to a final peace accord by the end of 2005.
Bush administration officials have said they welcome efforts like the Geneva Initiative to explore ways to settle the "final status" issues of the peace process but that it does not detract from U.S. support for the "road map."
At his meeting Thursday with Jordan's King Abdullah, President Bush said private peace efforts are fine, provided they adhere to the basic principles of the vision for a two-state solution he outlined in his Middle East policy address last June.
"I think it's productive so long as they adhere to the principles I've just outlined," he said. "And that is we must fight off terror, that there must be security, and there must be an emergence of a Palestinian state that is democratic and free. And the position of this government is clear, and it's firm. We appreciate people discussing peace. We just want to make sure people understand that the principles to peace are clear."
The Geneva plan has attracted broad international support but been condemned by some hard-line Palestinian and Israeli factions.
Aides to Prime Minister Sharon have disparaged Mr. Beilin as a discredited leftist politician and have pointed to what they say are Mr. Abed Rabbo's connections to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and say Mr. Powell's decision to meet them is a mistake.
Some influential members of Congress are also leery about the administration gesture. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Thursday said that entertaining free-lance peace plans like the Geneva initiative, which he said "morally equates terrorism and self-defense," is counter-productive to the peace process and dangerous.
Despite the criticism, officials said Thursday that plans continue for a similar meeting next week by Mr. Powell with former Israeli security service chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian educator Sari Nusseibeh, who are spearheading a petition drive in the two communities for an end to armed conflict.