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Unofficial Mideast Peace Plan Comes to Washington - 2003-12-05

The authors of an unofficial peace plan for the Middle East are in Washington to promote support for their document, which was unveiled in Geneva, Switzerland. Former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and his Palestinian counterpart, former Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, hope their plan can breathe life into the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They are meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell. VOA's Jeff Lilley heard the two men speak at a press conference in Washington.

Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, both former negotiators, hammered out details of a peace settlement known as the Geneva Accord over the past two and a half years. Because of roadblocks separating Israel from the Palestinian Authority, the two men sometimes had to meet in a car parked at military checkpoints. But after years of sitting across from each other in official negotiations, they were tired of failure and violence.

“Some people accuse us of being dreamers, of talking about things that are irrelevant,” says Abed Rabbo. “I would say it's not the duty of civil society, of people like us and of those who see that the two nations are heading from disaster to another disaster. It's not their duty just to wait and observe until maybe the leaders and maybe not will decide to sit and negotiate and find a final solution.”

Yossi Beilin says they were also driven by desperation. At risk, he says, is the Jewish dream of a democratic Israel, living at peace with its neighbors: “My own feeling is that the opportunity for a two-state solution is becoming dimmer and dimmer and that the opportunity to fulfill the Zionist dream may be endangered. I think that part of Zionism is living together side by side with our neighbors. This was from day one. If we give up on it and Israel is not going to be either Jewish or democratic, it's the end of our story.”

Mr. Beilin and Mr. Abed Rabbo say the Geneva Accord compliments previous agreements, such as President George Bush's "road map" for Middle East peace. The Bush plan calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005. But they say their plan goes a step further by laying out a comprehensive solution for Israel-Palestinian agreement:

“What we did in this document is we found a solution for all the issues that many people from both sides, leaders, politicians, political groups said, ‘No, don't touch these issues. They are untouchable. Don't come closer to the issue of Jerusalem because everything will collapse. Don't come closer to the issue of refugees because in this case everybody will unite against you.’ Don't solve anything, and at the same time try to convince both nations that peace is possible this was the logic of the past.”

The accord calls for a divided Jerusalem to be the capital of both Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state. Palestinians would gain control of cherished holy sites, such as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims. But Jewish worshippers would be assured access.

Meanwhile, Israel would withdraw most of its settlements from Palestinian territories, and Palestinians would give up the right of return, ensuring that Israel would not have to face a flood of refugees demanding homes they had fled or lost. Some refugees would be accepted in Israel, but most would return to the new country of Palestine.

Mr. Beilin says the plan is backed by various Israeli and Palestinian political groups, but one in particular stands out - former top-ranking Israeli military and intelligence officers: “You have the former defense establishment. It is very difficult to dismiss a former chief of staff, commanders of the police, the chairmanship of the Mossad, a former head of the security service. All of them were with us in Geneva the other day. You saw this group of people and said to yourself: this is not the usual suspects of peace. This is a very different kind of group, and this is why the effort to dismiss it as politicians who are has-beens, who met with each other for three years because they had nothing else to do, failed.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians who have signed the accord believe the last three years of spreading violence have undermined prospects for a lasting peace.

Daniel Levy, who helped craft the Israeli positions, fears governments around the world are losing hope, especially when they see Israel constructing a formidable security barrier on the West Bank: “The worst possible news for us would be if the world pigeonholed us in the category of ‘intractable conflict.' In this respect, what Geneva does, and the model it presents, stands in stark contrast to what is happening by default. Currently we are hurtling towards a situation in which the paving of settlements and outposts is paving the way to the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The fence is having the same impact, because the fence will actually detract from the prospects of a future two-state solution.”

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has said the unofficial pact opens the door for dialogue, though he has not endorsed it. On the Israeli side, there is strong opposition from the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which says the accord neglects the issue of a halt to terrorism by Palestinian radical groups. Mr. Sharon has insisted bloodshed must stop before peace talks can resume.

Extremists on both sides have denounced the accord, with a group of 250 rabbis labeling the Israelis who signed the document as traitors and a Palestinian religious institution issuing an edict against supporting the plan.

The opposition doesn't seem to faze the plan's authors. Mr. Beilin says they expected criticism and have a strategy to combat it: they will appeal directly to the people. They are attempting to distribute a copy of the Geneva Accord to every household in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“We are going to get as much support in the public opinion so that eventually the governments will change their policies," says Mr. Beilin. “We ourselves have to put pressure on our government to change their policy.”

So far they appear to have gained considerable support. Recent polls show as many as 50 percent of Israelis and Palestinians approve the principles contained in the Geneva Accord.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gave another boost when he agreed to meet with Mr. Beilin and Mr. Abed Rabbo despite strong resistance from the Israeli government. President Bush has indicated he supports the meeting.

Both Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo are urging the United States to adopt their accord as part of President Bush's roadmap for peace in the Middle East. That American support, they believe, will make it harder for their opponents back home to dismiss their efforts to bring an end to a conflict that is not only inflaming the region but much of the world as well.