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Bush Administration Welcomes Unofficial Mideast Peace Initiatives

The Bush administration says it welcomes Israeli-Palestinian peace-making exercises like the "Geneva Initiative" launched Monday. However, it says it continues to see the international "road map" as the way forward to an eventual settlement of the Middle East conflict.

U.S. officials have made clear that they look with favor on unofficial peace projects such as the Geneva Initiative, spearheaded by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

But they also say the informal negotiating efforts are no substitute for tangible action by the current Israeli and Palestinian authorities toward fulfilling their "road map" obligations, starting with a crackdown by the new Palestinian government of Ahmed Qureia against terrorists.

Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote the two authors of the Geneva Initiative early last month, saying that undertakings like theirs nurture hope for the revival of a peace process stalled for more than three years amid violence that has killed more than 3,000 people.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States considers it "worthwhile" that Israeli and Palestinian private citizens are discussing ways to settle to critical "final status" issues of the peace process including refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

At the same time, he said the "road map" provides the way to get to the point where those issues can actually be resolved. "How these big issues are decided by Israelis and Palestinians is not going to be decided by the United States. Nor is it going to be decided by "track two" or unofficial discussions. It's going to be decided in direct talks between the governments. And to get to that point, we need to stop the terror, we need to move through the process of the "road map." But the Secretary in in helping to sustain an atmosphere of hope in which Israelis and Palestinians can discuss his letter to the people involved in the project, and the other one as well, said projects such as yours are important mutually-acceptable resolutions to the issues that confront them," he said.

The "road map," jointly sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Community and the United Nations, provides for reciprocal steps by two sides leading to a final peace accord by the end of 2005. It was unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Security Council two weeks ago.

Officials here are sensitive to the concerns of members of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government that the Geneva Initiative is a harmful, if not subversive, enterprise and they have said repeatedly that the administration is not engaged in an "end run" around leaders in the region.

None-the-less, Mr. Boucher said that senior State Department officials, and perhaps Mr. Powell himself, will meet with the key figures of the Geneva project and a parallel, unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative when they visit Washington later this month.

The former chief of the Israeli security service "Shin Bet," Ami Ayalon, and Palestinian educator and politician Sari Nusseibeh are behind the other project, a petition drive, begun in June that has collected more than 150,000 signatures in the two communities, for an end to armed conflict.