The Bush administration Wednesday reaffirmed its backing for the international "road map" to Middle East peace. But the White House also made clear it had no problem with Secretary of State Colin Powell's intention to meet Friday with the authors of an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
The Israeli government has said a Powell meeting with the freelance negotiators would be a mistake. The White House says it continues to hold that the "road map" is the best path forward to the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict envisioned by President Bush. But despite Israeli complaints, it is defending as useful Mr. Powell's plan to meet Friday with the authors of the so-called Geneva initiative.
The unofficial peace plan was unveiled Monday by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, who are now in the United States promoting the document and are to see the secretary of state Friday.
The sweeping shadow agreement would create a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel and would resolve other contentious issues that have thwarted peace negotiators over the years. Among other things, the plan drafted by ex-politicians and policy experts would make a divided Jerusalem the capital of both states, provide for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and most of the West Bank, and void the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. The formula has drawn widespread international praise but condemnation from Israeli and Palestinian hardliners.
The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the plan would undercut, if not subvert, its own peace efforts and Mr. Sharon's deputy Ehud Olmert says the meeting planned by Mr. Powell would be a mistake. But the secretary has written the plan's authors, saying efforts such as theirs nurture hope for the revival of the peace process. At a news conference in Morocco Wednesday, Mr. Powell said he has an obligation to listen to those with ideas for advancing peace efforts
"I do not know why I or anyone else in the United States government should deny ourselves the opportunity to hear from others who are committed to peace and who have ideas with respect to peace," he said. "And so as the American secretary of state, I have an obligation to the American people and to the president and my other colleagues in the administration to listen to individuals who have interesting ideas. This in no way undercuts our strong support for the state of Israel, this in no way undercuts our support for the road map."
The Geneva initiative co-authors, Mr. Beilin and Mr. Abed Rabbo, told an audience at Washington's Brookings Institution Wednesday that their effort is intended to advance and not compete with the "road map."
Mr. Abed Rabbo called the controversial plan a pragmatic, possible solution to the conflict that balances Israeli and Palestinian interests.
Officials here say Secretary Powell, who returns from his trip to Europe and North Africa early Friday, intends to "drop by" a meeting later in the day involving the two Geneva plan authors and Middle East experts from the State Department and the White House National Security Council.
They say Mr. Powell is also likely to meet next week with the key figures in another grassroots Middle East peace initiative, former Israeli security service chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian educator Sari Nusseibeh. They have mounted a petition drive for an end to armed conflict that has collected more than 150,000 signatures in the two communities.