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Geneva Accord Authors Take Campaign to US - 2003-12-05

The authors of the latest unofficial Middle East peace plan - the so-called Geneva Accord - have taken their campaign for acceptance to the United States. They will meet Friday with senior policymakers, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. On the way to the nation's capital, the plan's chief sponsors stopped in New York to brief an influential foreign policy group.

They are being treated like traitors in many quarters back home. But the architects of the Geneva Accord say the overall reaction to their peace proposal has been far beyond their expectations.

On the eve of their meetings with senior Bush administration officials, former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yassir Abed Rabbo were hosted Thursday, by New York's privately funded Council on Foreign Relations.

The audience was largely supportive, but skeptical that any unofficial plan - especially one denounced by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian terror groups - has any chance of success.

But Mr. Rabbo said grassroots support among usually cynical Israelis and Palestinians has been encouraging.

"We think that the understanding of the people is much better than we expected," he said. "All polls among Palestinian people had shown [that] not less than 40 percent of Palestinians support this document."

Questioners in the audience noted that there are many seemingly intractable obstacles to peace in the Middle East. Moderator James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, pointed to Israel's security barrier that juts deep into Palestinian territory, and the settlements on that territory, as being among the biggest irritants.

But Yossi Beilin said his plan envisions an easing of Israeli security fears that will make the barrier - and the settlements - unnecessary.

"We decided settlements would not determine the future border and we are drawing a border according to our mutual needs, not according to the 140 settlements," said Mr. Beilin. "If this is not preventing us from determining a border, a wall which is being built in the beginning of the 21st century would be the last thing to prevent us from drawing our future border."

Hogue What do you expect, that the wall will be torn down if?

Beilin: "Exactly. We have some precedents. The wall is the result of the Israeli genuine fear of terrorism, of mothers and fathers who see the situation and are afraid to send their kids to school or to the theater of whatever."

Mr. Beilin says Prime Minister Sharon ordered the barrier built in response to public pressure, and would welcome the chance to tear it down.

"So many Israelis, more than 70 percent of the Israelis, wanted the wall," he said. "It is more than natural. Because they understand there is no other solution, there is no peace around the corner, they don't trust the other side. They know the government is not negotiating at all, so they wanted the wall, so Sharon decided to build the wall, and now we are accused of building this wall, but I can assure you that, behind closed doors, this was the last thing on his mind. He didn't want a wall."

Another thorny issue facing any peace initiative is the status of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Israel and the United States want him excluded. Mr. Beilin says Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush must realize that their efforts to isolate Mr. Arafat are counter-productive.

"The Oslo process brought Arafat into the picture because we understood that he is the real leader of the Palestinians whether we like it or not, and most of us did not like it," continued Mr. Beilin. "As a result of the last three years in which he made big mistakes, big mistakes. But it didn't make him a non-leader of the Palestinians, and boycotting him and putting pressures on those who meet with them is, I think, the wrong way to deal with the issue, because it strengthens him."

Mr. Beilin says the difference between the plan he and Mr. Rabbo propose and the officially sponsored road map to peace is that the Geneva Accord spells out an end game. It even addresses the sensitive issue of the status of Jerusalem.

Secretary of State Powell, while expressing faith in the road map as the best formula for peace, has expressed interest in the Geneva Accord. While traveling in Africa this week, he said "it seems to me that the more people who talk about the prospect for peace, the better off we are."