Secretary of State Colin Powell met Friday with the Israeli and Palestinian authors of the unofficial "Geneva Accord" for Middle East peace. Former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo say they're encouraged by the reception they received in Washington.
The Bush administration has made clear it does not see the Geneva Initiative as a substitute for the international "road map" for Middle East peace.
But Mr. Powell and other officials including White House Middle East policy chief Elliot Abrams met for more than an hour-and-a-half with the co-authors of the peace plan in a gesture that, at the very least, underlined U.S. interest in the project.
Emerging to talk to reporters, Mr. Abed Rabbo said he was encouraged by Mr. Powell's words and those of President Bush, who Thursday termed the unofficial peace-making exercise "constructive."
The former Palestinian cabinet member, a close associate of Yasser Arafat, said the Geneva plan is "complementary" to the "road map" and aimed at strengthening its credibility in both societies.
He said for the first time, Israelis and Palestinians are presenting the international community with ideas for resolving the Middle East conflict, and not the other way around.
"For the first time in our history, we do not receive initiatives from others in order to comment on them, but we are introducing a Palestinian-Israeli plan and asking others to support them. And this change is very significant, and is appreciated by everybody including the people we have met here in Washington, and in New York and of course the meeting with Secretary Powell and his aides in the State Department," he said.
Unveiled last Monday, the Geneva Initiative calls for creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel and proposes solutions to the other final-status issues of the peace process.
It calls for a divided Jerusalem to be the capital of the two states, for an Israeli withdrawal from, and the uprooting of Jewish settlements in, Gaza and most of the West Bank, and would largely void the right of Palestinian refugees to return to areas remaining under Israeli jurisdiction.
The plan has been condemned by Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners and been rejected by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Beilin, a figure in former Israeli Labor governments, acknowledged the controversy and said the initiative has succeeded in reviving debate after three years of violence and political stalemate on the most intractable issues of the peace process.
"Now, we have a debate, an internal debate, a very interesting one, intensive one, and quite painful in Israeli society about refugees, about the Temple Mount, about Jerusalem," he said. "And on the Palestinian side you have the same debate about the same issues. And We are creating a coalition of sanity against the coalition of extremists who are rejecting any peace initiative. And we believe that this debate is the most helpful one, and healthy one, that we can envisage."
Mr. Powell, in keeping with the State Department's low-key treatment of the meeting, did not appear publicly with Mr. Beilin and Mr. Abed Rabbo. But later, after talks with Jordan's King Abdullah, the secretary said he had a "very good" discussion with them, and explained the U.S. view of the "primacy" of the road map as the one document both Israeli and Palestinian authorities accept as the pathway to peace:
"It is still there, and I think it is still the basis to go forward. But we welcome other ideas, and they had a chance to share with me the reasons for the work that they have been doing, and how they believe it can contribute to the process toward peace, and how it is complementary to the road map. So it was a good discussion," he said.
The road map, jointly launched by the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations launched last January, calls for corresponding steps by both sides leading to an overall settlement of the conflict by the end of 2005. Unlike the Geneva plan, though, it does not propose specific ways to resolve the question of Jerusalem, refugees, and other final-status issues.