Unofficial Mideast Peace Plans Get Global Backing
by Jim Lobe
December 2, 2003

If the success of the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace plan launched amid great fanfare in Geneva on Monday were dependent on international goodwill, it could be implemented tomorrow.

With three Nobel Peace Prize laureates – including former US president Jimmy Carter – in attendance, as well as messages of support sent from leaders from around the world, including a video hookup with former South African president Nelson Mandela, the so-called "Geneva Initiative" was signed by former ministers Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo before more than 300 Israelis and Palestinians.

But the question that remains to be answered was whether the Initiative, as well as a parallel citizen's petition, known as the "People's Voice" project, initiated by former Israeli intelligence chief Ami Ayalon and a prominent Palestinian leader, Sari Nusseibeh, can generate sufficient international and domestic pressure to achieve a breakthrough for both sides.

"We are saying to the world: 'Don't believe those who tell you that our conflict is unsolvable'," urged Beilin, who served as justice minister under the Labor-led Israeli governments of the 1990s. "Don't try to help us manage the conflict. Help us to end it."

"We cannot wait while the future of our two nations slides deeper into catastrophe," warned Rabbo, former information minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and a longtime collaborator of its president, Yasser Arafat.

The detailed, 50-page initiative, based largely on official peace talks held in Taba, Egypt just before the Labor Party was voted out of office in January 2001, was completed in October and has been circulating since, drawing support from prominent global figures, including United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The People's Voice, which has been signed by some 200,000 Israelis and Palestinians, has also drawn favorable comment from US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the principal proponent of the US war in Iraq and widely considered the highest-ranking "neo-conservative" hawk in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Nonetheless, Washington maintained a discreet silence on the two plans Monday, apparently fearful that anything it said could upset the current diplomatic mission to Israel – the first in several months – aimed at getting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qurei, to resume peace talks.

The Initiative calls for the creation of a Palestinian state roughly defined by the Green Line that marked Israel's borders before the Jewish state conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war.

Jewish settlements close to the border would be incorporated into Israel in exchange for comparable territory in Israel being turned over to the Palestinians. Others would be abandoned or absorbed by Palestine.

Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to the new Palestine or opt to be resettled with compensation and rehabilitation assistance in third countries. A few would be permitted to return to their homes in Israel, subject to Israel's agreement. The Palestinian state would also be demilitarized.

As to the contentious issue of Jerusalem, Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would become the capital of Palestine; each side would govern its holy sites with guarantees of access by members of all religious faiths; while a US-led multinational force would help provide security and ensure the accord's implementation.

A public-opinion survey sponsored and released last week by the Texas-based James Baker III Institute and Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) found that such a plan has majority support among both Palestinians and Israelis.

In face-to-face interviews, 53.3 percent of Israelis said they would support such a proposal, while 43.9 percent said they opposed it. Among Palestinians, the proportion was 55.6 percent for and 38.5 percent against.

While Arafat and his ruling Fatah Party in the PA have not taken a formal position on the plan, he reportedly encouraged Rabbo in his work and several other top Fatah officials, including Arafat's top security official, to attend the Geneva signing.

Sharon, on the other hand, strongly denounced the plan when it became public, going so far as to suggest that it constituted treason. But after Powell and Wolfowitz indicated they support such initiatives, the prime minister muted his remarks, leaving it to his right-wing ministers to lead the charge against it.

In this, they have been supported by US neo-conservatives – apart from Wolfowitz who has long voiced more sympathy for the plight of Palestinians than his ideological comrades – and leaders of the Christian Right, who have attacked the Initiative.

New York Times columnist William Safire wrote last week that Sharon had nothing to worry about since he "is backed up by a US president who has shown he understands the value of patience and courage in the face of terror."

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who often acts as a mouthpiece for hard-line pro-Likud officials in the administration, said the Initiative amounts to a "suicide note (for Israel) – by a private citizen on behalf of a country that has utterly rejected him politically."

He added that Powell's letter of encouragement to Beilin and Rabbo was a "disgrace."

Still, both plans have support from some surprising US sources, including Wolfowitz and Powell.

Republican Senator John McCain, normally close to the neo-conservatives on foreign-policy issues, has spoken favorably of them, as has California Democrat, Sen. Diane Feinstein, one of the most prominent Jewish members of Congress, and Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican moderate who recently complained that the administration's "disengagement" in peace talks was hurting its credibility in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world.

Outside the United States, current and former leaders who have taken an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear virtually unanimous behind the plans.

Among those who sent messages of support to Geneva were Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Morocco's King Mohamad VI and former president Bill Clinton.

Former president Carter told the Geneva audience: "The only alternative to this initiative is sustained and growing violence."

Fifty-eight former world leaders also signed a statement endorsing both plans and noting the critical importance of laying out the basic principles of a "fair and lasting solution" at the beginning of the peace process rather than negotiating incremental steps that gives leverage to "extremists on both sides."

They also called for the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, which have been trying unsuccessfully to get both parties to implement a "road map" unveiled 10 months ago, to line up behind the two initiatives.

Signers included former Finnish presidents Martti Ahtisaari and Kalevi Sorsa; former Costa Rican presidents Oscar Arias Sanchez and Jose Maria Figueres; former Swedish prime ministers Carl Bildt and Ingvar Carlsson; former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso; and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Former Indian prime minister I. K. Gujral; former Australian prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke; former South African president F. W. de Klerk; former Philippine president Fidel Ramos; former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings; former Polish prime minister Hanna Suchoka; and former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo also endorsed the plans.

Among international officials, former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali; former European Commission president Jacques Delors; former UN high commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata; former UN Population Fund director Nafis Sadik; former Organization of African Unity secretary-general Salim Ahmed Salim, and former UN commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson also signed the statement.

Inter Press Service

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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