Secretary of State Colin Powell has written the Israeli and Palestinian authors of an unofficial Middle East peace plan, expressing appreciation for their efforts to tackle some of the difficult issues in the regional peace process. The State Department says the Powell gesture is not a U.S. endorsement of the terms of the informal plan, or an effort to circumvent current Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

The so-called "back-channel" Middle East peace negotiations are a politically-sensitive issue, and the State Department is going to great lengths to stress that U.S. support is for the effort at Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and not an endorsement of the plan produced by the ad hoc Geneva negotiators.

The two main authors of the plan, former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, wrote Secretary of State Powell last month reviewing the results of their work, which involved policy experts and participants in past negotiations between the two sides.

Their unofficial Geneva agreement calls for a Palestinian state consisting of the Gaza Strip, virtually all of the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It would uproot most Jewish settlements in those areas, while Palestinian refugees would give up their right to return to areas that would not be part of the Palestinian state.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States remains committed to the international "road map" for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict by 2005 as "the way forward" and that an essential condition for making progress is for the Palestinians to act against terrorism.

At the same time, he said Mr. Powell welcomes endeavors like the "back-channel" negotiations and said the United States is encouraged any time Israelis and Palestinians sit down to address the difficult issues of peace.

"Projects such as this, dialogues such as this, are important to help sustain an atmosphere of hope to try to indicate that maybe these issues can be dealt with," he said. "But they don't resolve the issues, and these issues won't be resolved until governments, the leaders involved, get to the point where they can sit down and settle them officially. So we're not endorsing a particular formula for Jerusalem, or refugees, or the other issues being dealt with. But as I've said here today, and I think before, that we've been encouraged that Israelis and Palestinians are talking to each other, and trying to start addressing these important issues."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been bitterly critical of the informal talks and of Mr. Beilin, a leftist former member of parliament, saying his team undermined Israeli security had no right to go behind the back of his government and make concessions, even in a symbolic deal.

Under questioning here, spokesman Boucher said Mr. Powell's appreciation for the project was not an effort to circumvent Prime Minister Sharon or Palestinian leaders, for that matter.

A senior U.S. diplomat who spoke to reporters said there is "no contradiction" between efforts like the Geneva dialogue and the "road map."

He said the final status issues of the peace process will eventually have to be dealt with official negotiations under the "road map," and said the fact that some people are trying to address those issues now "is a good thing."