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‘virtual’ Accord Gaining Real Support Ahead of Backers’ Washington Visit

For a peace agreement that even its framers admit is “virtual,” the “Geneva accord” is getting plenty of real traction in Washington and among American Jews.

Leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements joined Muslim and Christian groups in an interfaith appeal on Tuesday urging the Bush administration to rededicate itself to Israeli-Palestinian peace, citing the Geneva proposal as one model.

The two lead negotiators of the unofficial peace proposal, Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo and Israeli opposition figure Yossi Beilin, will hold back-to-back meetings Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense.

Considering that Wolfowitz and Powell usually are at odds on matters of foreign policy, the meetings are a sign of the administration’s encouragement of the Geneva accord.

It’s a trend that clearly has Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government worried. Israeli officials were lobbying hard against the meetings. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert questioned Powell’s judgement, calling the meeting with Beilin and Abed Rabbo a “mistake.”

In response, U.S. officials say they remain committed to the internationally-backed “road map” peace plan, which envisions an end to terrorism and a Palestinian state within three years. Israeli officials say they were reassured by that message.

“Even though the Americans are encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to discuss and look for creative alternatives, the only policy that has been endorsed is the road map,” Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said.

The road map is stalled however, and American Jewish officials say Israel’s best chance at undercutting the Geneva proposal is if current efforts to revive the road map succeed.

“It’s hard to complain about people talking about peace when there’s not much else out there,” said one American Jewish official who deals regularly with Israeli officials.

American sponsors of Beilin and Abed Rabbo’s visit to Washington and New York this week said the duo’s sudden popularity had come as a pleasant surprise.

Together with criticism of Sharon’s policies from top Israeli security officials, support for the Geneva proposal “collectively sends a signal that simply muddying along with the bloody status quo is not acceptable,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, which is organizing some of Beilin’s Washington appearances.

Sharon complains that Beilin’s team has no authority to negotiate in Israel’s name and concedes far too much, including land swaps, the dismantlement of several heavily populated Jewish settlements and a division of Jerusalem.

Yet it is precisely those details that make the accord attractive to Bush administration officials frustrated by the reluctance of Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to commit to detailed solutions for the most controversial issues dividing the sides.

“We have welcomed efforts such as these, such as that embodied by the drafters of this Geneva plan, to introduce issues, discuss issues and consider issues that have to be dealt with down the road,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.

The Zionist Organization of America harshly criticized the administration’s treatment of the plan.

” It is appalling that the Bush administration would legitimize an agreement by radical Israelis acting in opposition to the democratically elected government of Israel,” said the group’s national president, Morton Klein. “Imagine how the United States would feel if Israel were to embrace a group of radical former members of Congress who negotiate an accord on nuclear weapons with the North Korean government.”

In a New York Times opinion article Monday, Beilin and Abed Rabbo said the accord is a “virtual” agreement for decision-makers to do with as they please.

An eagerness to get to the nitty-gritty is not new for the Bush administration, which already has voiced strong support for another freelance peace initiative, a petition promoted by Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh.

More significant are the mainstream Jewish groups signing on to an initiative that Israel’s government has described as naive at best and treasonous at worst.

The interfaith appeal, called “Walk the Road to Peace,” calls on the United States to immediately “focus public attention and support on” proposed solutions, and cites the Geneva accord. Leaders of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements have signed on.

Orthodox officials said they never were approached about joining the appeal.

The Orthodox Union told JTA on Tuesday that it had not formulated a position on the Geneva proposal. The Religious Zionists of America, in a statement released Monday, said, “We condemn to the utmost possible the charade taking place in Geneva.”

Signatories said the attraction of initiatives that might jump-start a peace process overrode their concerns about signing onto a plan with Muslim and Christian leaders with whom they often are at odds.

“It was important in a public way to show that there’s across-the-board support for these measures, that we’re willing to work together to put aside some very different perspectives, strained relationships, for a greater good,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the Geneva accord does not appeal to him, but he signed on to the interfaith appeal because at least it represented a dialogue.

“Would have I preferred that” the Geneva accord “not be in there? Yes. But it’s in there,” Epstein said. “My reason for being in on this is that I believe dialogue is important.”

Some American Jewish groups have strongly opposed the accord. The Anti-Defamation League called the Geneva proposal a “highly political venture which may have a negative impact” on peace efforts. The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs called it a “total sham” that undermines Israeli democracy.

But the main pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was decidedly mild in its note to activists on how to deal with the proposal.

“In a democracy like Israel, it is common for non-governmental and academic policy discussions to take place,” the AIPAC letter said. Calling the accord “well-intentioned,” it concluded that “only the elected governments can make decisions.”

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