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Powell Meets With Palestinian Co-author of Unofficial Mideast Peace Plan - 2003-12-12

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met late Thursday with the Palestinian co-author of an unofficial plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. The session with Palestinian educator Sari Nusseibeh was the second meeting of its kind for Mr. Powell in the span of a week.

Mr. Powell spent about 45-minutes with Mr. Nusseibeh, who along with his Israeli partner, former "Shin Bet" security chief Ami Ayalon, have mounted an unprecedented petition drive in the two communities for a peace plan calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The meeting, originally set for Friday, was moved up to Thursday evening and Mr. Ayalon was caught in New York City traffic and missed a flight to Washington for the discussion.

Mr. Nusseibeh, president of the Al-Quds university in Jerusalem, told reporters afterward Mr. Powell welcomed private peace initiatives like his endeavor with Mr. Ayalon, while reiterating the U.S. commitment to the international "road map" to a peace accord by the end of 2005.

Less than two pages in length, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan calls for an Israeli withdrawal from essentially all of the West Bank and Gaza and for an "open city" of Jerusalem to be the capital of both states. Palestinian refugees would be compensated from an international fund, but have a right to return only to the new Palestinian state.

Mr. Nusseibeh said the plan complements the "road map" and unlike the international peace effort prescribes solutions to the most-intractable "final status" issues of the Middle East conflict.

He said while neither he nor Mr. Ayalon are major political figures, their grass-roots petition campaign has attracted 200,000 signatures, two-thirds of them from Israelis, and could grow to the point where it cannot be ignored by the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships.

"We believe we can go on collecting signatures and perhaps, you know, reach the half a million, a million mark," he said. "But we need to go on gathering signatures until we reach the critical number, which is the number that will make its impact on the respective leaderships to negotiate on the basis of the principles we have outlined. We have not actually drawn a detailed scenario of the 'end game.'But we've outlined the basic principles we think that are necessary for the two leaderships to negotiate an 'end game.'"

Mr. Nusseibeh said he and Mr. Ayalon are not competing with former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, who launched a similar though more detailed peace plan in Geneva December 1 and met with Mr. Powell last Friday.

The ad hoc peace efforts have not been specifically embraced by the Palestinian leadership, and they have been condemned by aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who say they are unhelpful if not outright subversive to Israel's interests.

Asked about such opposition, Mr. Nusseibeh said if enough people on both sides want the kind of peace settlement proposed in the unofficial plans, "it will happen whoever the leadership is."

Secretary Powell will hear the Sharon government's views first-hand Friday when he meets Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.