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Israeli Officials Downplay Geneva, While Dovish Jews Prepare to Attend

November 26, 2003
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As supporters of an independent Middle East peace initiative prepare to gather in Geneva next week, Israeli officials and many European Jewish community leaders are attempting to downplay the significance of the plan.

But the initiative also appears to have mobilized many supporters both in Israel — where a recent poll suggested that more than half of the population supported the plan — and elsewhere in the world.

On Dec. 1, the Swiss city will play host to what officially has been titled “The Geneva Initiative: A Public Commitment,” a wide-ranging statement of principles agreed to after more than two years of negotiations between Palestinian politicians close to Yasser Arafat and a group of Israeli peace activists, headed by Israel’s former justice minister, Yossi Beilin.

The initiative, decried by Israel as contrary to the policies of the country’s elected government, envisages Israeli withdrawal from virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the division of Jerusalem and Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Opponents of the plan also claim that it is not specific regarding the right of return for Palestinian refugees and could leave the door open for tens of thousands of refugees to settle in Israel.

Among those condemning the plan are Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has called it more dangerous than the Oslo Accords, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has called it “delusional.” Labor Party leader Shimon Peres also has refused to endorse it.

However, the plan is widely backed in both the Labor and Meretz parties. And its supporters include a number of retired senior army officers, including former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Amram Mitzna, who as Labor Party leader was trounced by Sharon in elections earlier this year.

The plan also has received strong backing from a number of European states, with both the French and Belgian foreign ministers meeting last month in Paris with Beilin and the principal Palestinian negotiator, former Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

The Bush administration, treading delicately on the issue, is sending a low-level official from the U.S. Embassy in Bern to attend as an observer, according to a State Department official.

While Secretary of State Colin Powell has praised the initiative as a way to help move the process forward, Bush doesn’t want to get as close to it, observers say.

“He doesn’t want a direct collision with Sharon,” said Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now, who will be in Geneva next week.

Rosenblum, who met with the new P.A. prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, in Ramallah last week, said Qurei “endorsed Geneva.”

It is not yet clear which world leaders will be attending the event next week, since it was hastily arranged. President Carter has said he will be there.

The most important logistical and organizational support has come from Switzerland.

Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman Alessandro Delprete told JTA that the Swiss role was “to act as a facilitator in the promotion of peace.”

“Our role is to bring together those in both societies who are searching for peace, but we do not influence the substance of the discussions between the parties,” Delprete said.

Both Israel and some Jewish leaders abroad strongly criticized the Swiss involvement.

The secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, Serge Cwajgenbaum, said that while he was “not convinced about the manner” in which the Swiss had involved themselves in the negotiations, he understood that “it is in the interests of Europeans to help the Palestinians come towards peace.”

But, he said, “it is not normal or supportable that one sovereign state interferes in the affairs of another.”

That is one of the issues that has the Sharon government so upset about an accord whose principal Israeli negotiator is an out-of-office Israeli politician.

Cwajgenbaum said that the issue was raised in talks that he and the World Jewish Congress had with Swiss officials last week, but they did not reach the level of a formal protest.

Like Israel, most Jewish leaders in Europe have been keen not to draw too much attention to the plan.

Contacted by JTA, the Israeli Embassy in Geneva said it would neither be protesting nor reacting to the Geneva event.

Reiterating Israel’s support for the “road map” peace plan, Ambassador Ya’acov Levy said that other initiatives such as the Geneva proposals “could give the Palestinians an excuse to not fulfill their commitments.”

Similar reaction came from a senior Israeli official in Paris who said that Israel would not be interested in “drawing too much attention to Beilin’s solo effort.”

But some international Jewish groups are enthusiastically backing the initiative, and they will be represented at the Geneva event on Monday.

Representatives of Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum will be among the American Jewish groups represented.

Alain Rozenkier from French Peace Now brushed off much of the Israeli criticism, saying, “Sometimes politics is too important to be left to the politicians.”

Moreover, he said, the initiative was in no way in conflict with the road map, which is backed by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

“We have supported this initiative as well as the one proposed” by former Israeli Shin Bet security chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, Rosenkier said.

That plan outlines two states separated along pre-1967 borders, a divided Jerusalem and no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

“Both can have the effect of restarting the road map,” Rosenkier said.

Indeed, with Powell now giving guarded backing to the Geneva initiative alongside U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Europeans, it’s becoming less clear which plan really has the support of the international community — despite Israel’s protestations.

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