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Powell Meets Geneva Negotiators, but Stresses Backing for ‘road Map’

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Architects of an unofficial peace proposal are trying to convince U.S. officials that their initiative can help push forward the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan.

In a meeting last Friday with drafters of the “Geneva accord” initiative, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he appreciated their efforts but that “there are no short cuts on the way” to peace.

The Geneva negotiators’ main message was that their plan complements the road map, which envisions the formation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

“There’s no doubt that the road map is the leading plan,” Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a member of the Israeli delegation, told reporters. “What we are doing serves to breathe new life into the road map.”

The road map was presented formally in early June at a summit in Aqaba, Jordan. Implementation quickly stalled, however, as the Palestinians refused to follow up on their commitment to dismantle terrorist groups and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat resisted attempts to empower a Palestinian prime minister.

Israel made initial steps to meet its obligations to remove illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank but soon stopped and allowed many to be rebuilt.

The road map sets out a three-year timetable toward peace but leaves many details for the two sides to negotiate. Nabil Kassis, the P.A. planning minister, said the Geneva plan helps push the road map forward by outlining for Israelis and Palestinians what a final status agreement would look like.

“What we said is we should have some view of what the third phase looks like, and we shouldn’t wait until June 2005,” Kassis told reporters.

Israeli officials criticized Powell’s decision to meet with the Geneva architects. The Israeli government considers the initiative to offer an inordinate number of concessions and stresses that the opposition figures who negotiated it have no right to offer concessions in Israel’s name. None are currently Knesset members.

Israeli opposition figure Yossi Beilin and Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo were the primary architects of the unofficial accord.

Powell rebuffed the Israel’s criticism, saying he had a right to hear out anyone offering new ideas for peace.

Adam Ereli, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said Powell emerged from the meeting convinced that final-status issues should be dealt with only after the parties had achieved interim agreements.

“I think we’ve stated very clearly that a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is going to be decided on by the governments,” he said. “And there’s no question or doubt about that.”

Reacting to last Friday’s meeting, an Israeli government source said, “The decisions of the future of the peace process will be made by the elected government and not by anyone else, especially not by people who have no political constituency whatsoever in Israel.”

For their part, Palestinians demonstrated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip against the Geneva proposal, Israel Radio reported. In Nablus, several thousand Palestinians, mainly Hamas supporters, burned effigies of the negotiators.

In a statement after last Friday’s meeting, Powell said he explained that the road map “provides the appropriate pathway for moving to the realization of that vision and that there are no shortcuts along the way.”

Nonetheless, Powell said he hoped “that private citizens’ activities will improve cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.”

The Bush administration’s focus on rebuilding Iraq and on next year’s presidential election has overshadowed the administration’s attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Members of the Geneva contingent said they believed their plan, and the interest it has received in the United States and elsewhere, renews interest in the peace process and pressures Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be more active in pursuing peaceful avenues of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the initiative was unveiled, Sharon has spoken of his potential willingness to uproot Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“All this together creates a new movement, a new atmosphere in this area that Sharon’s listening to,” said Lipkin-Shahak, a former Israeli army chief of staff and Cabinet minister in Ehud Barak’s former government. “U.S. backing can have influence in Israel. We’re not naive enough to not know that.”

Lipkin-Shahak said he didn’t believe that the group’s meetings with American officials undermined Sharon.

“The American administration has enough, more effective ways to pressure Sharon if they want to, and it’s not clear they want to,” he said.

The Palestinian members of the Geneva contingent said the proposal, and its reception in Washington, sent Sharon a strong message.

“We found it necessary and useful to tell our people, to tell the world that Sharon is wrong,” said Zuheir Manasra, governor of Bethlehem. “There is a possibility for peace.”

However, Lipkin-Shahak said the plan’s main audience is the Israeli and Palestinian people.

“It’s not just a curiosity; there’s a hunger to know about the plan,” he said. “For the first time, Palestinians are arguing about refugees.”

He said the plan implicitly states that the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence will have no “right of return” to Israel, and that Palestinians understand that.

He likened discussions Palestinians are now having about refugees to Israeli debates several years ago about dividing Jerusalem — another controversial element of the plan.

The clause on the key Palestinian demand for a right of return — which most Israelis consider a call to destroy the Jewish state by an Arab demographic assault — has been among the most controversial aspects of the plan.

The proposal’s Israeli backers originally claimed that the Palestinians had clearly renounced the right of return. Palestinian negotiators denied that, noting that while the plan does not use the word “return,” the text incorporates a U.N. resolution and a Saudi Arabian peace plan that the Palestinians believe uphold their demand.

The proposal states that refugees would have the option of returning to Israel. Israel would have a veto but would be expected to take the average number of refugees taken in by other countries — an indeterminate figure.

At a speech Dec. 4 to the Israel Policy Forum in New York, JTA several times asked Abed Rabbo, the main Palestinian negotiator of the Geneva proposal, whether the Palestinians had renounced the right of return.

Abed Rabbo did not answer the question directly.

“I don’t deal in slogans, I deal in real solutions,” he said. “You translate it the way you like.” The plan offers a “collection of solutions” for refugees, he said, including the possibility of return to Israel.

“I believe this is the best we can afford our people,” Abed Rabbo said.

Last Friday, Kassis said that the agreement means “no unlimited return of refugees.”

Despite their meeting with Powell, the Geneva group has met some resistance in Washington. Most notably, President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, refused to meet with them, though Elliott Abrams, director of the National Security Council’s Middle East bureau, attended the Powell meeting.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also cancelled a meeting with the Geneva architects, though the delegation said it was due to a scheduling problem.

Kassis welcomed Bush’s description last week of the proposal as “productive.”

“He could have said it was counterproductive,” Kassis said.

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