Middle East peace activists are seeing rays of hope for the first time since pro-Likud neo-conservatives grabbed control of US policy toward the region after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
The specific focus of those hopes lies with two "unofficial" peace plans put together by leading Israelis and Palestinians that have begun transforming the debate over US Mideast policy from demands that the Palestinian Authority (PA) "dismantle the terrorist infrastructure" in the occupied territories before further steps toward peace, to what should be the shape of a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.
The two most prominent promoters of the former approach, US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, have both seen their popularity plummet in recent months, according to polls.
And two key US officials, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, have already offered encouraging words for the new peace efforts, as has key Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has long taken an interest in the conflict.
Both initiatives are circulating as the Palestinian intifada enters its fourth year, and the right-wing Likud government headed by Sharon races to build a controversial security fence in and around the West Bank to wall off Israel and many Israeli settlements there from the surrounding Palestinian population.
Palestinians and many Israelis are concerned that the fence, which cuts deeply into Palestinian territory, is an effort to impose a final border between the two peoples, one that would effectively prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, as called for by both the Oslo accords and the US-backed "road map."
Even Bush has called the barrier a "problem," although, like other concerns he has raised about Sharon’s policies over the past two years, he has failed to follow up with sanctions. Washington even vetoed a recent United Nations Security Council resolution that demanded a halt to construction.
The two peace plans are based on the premise that the PA will be able to effectively combat terrorism only when the Palestinian population can be assured of a final settlement that will meet their demands for an independent and viable state. Unlike Oslo or even the road map, both offer a vision of such a final settlement to which both parties are asked to agree.
One plan, worked out by the president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, and former Israeli intelligence chief, Ami Ayalon, has been signed by over 100,000 Israelis and more than 60,000 Palestinians.
It calls for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders and to share Jerusalem as the two people’s capital, in exchange for a demilitarized Palestinian state and the surrender by Palestinian refugees of any right of return to Israel.
The initiative has been signed by four former heads of Israel’s main security agency, Shin Bet including Ayalon as well as many other prominent Israelis and Palestinians.
In statements that caused consternation among neo-conservatives and other right-wing Zionists here, Wolfowitz described it not only as consistent with the Bush administration’s policy goals, but also as a way to bolster moderates in the Islamic world.
The second plan, called the Geneva Accords and worked out over two and a half years by unofficial delegations headed by former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, runs 50 pages and is based largely on peace talks in Egypt in January 2001, just before Sharon took power.
Far more detailed, it would require Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders subject to adjustments that would permit it to retain most of the larger Israeli settlements in the West Bank in exchange for a comparable amount of Israeli territory being transferred to the Palestinians.
It would also require that the Palestinians demilitarize, grant Israel control of Palestinian air space, and give up the right of return. Jerusalem would be divided between the two states with each having sovereignty over their respective holy sites.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has publicly supported the Geneva Accord, which has also been endorsed by a number of European leaders, including Bush’s closest international partner British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is expected to urge Bush to line up behind it during their summit in London this week.
Powell wrote a congratulatory letter to the heads of both delegations, describing the Accord as "important in helping to sustain an atmosphere of hope."
But what is increasingly compelling about both initiatives beyond their backers is the fact that the public-approval ratings of both Sharon and Bush have plummeted in recent weeks, apparently because of popular discontent with their hawkish policies..
Bush has seen has popularity plunge in the last couple of months due to the growing sense that the US military is sinking into a quagmire in Iraq despite assurances by his neo-conservative advisers that the US occupation would be easy and that his prewar claims about the threat posed by Baghdad were untrue.
Sharon has seen his approval ratings drop to only around 30 percent due apparently to the seriousness of the economic recession in Israel and the sense that his hard-line policies against Arafat and the Palestinians have reached a dead-end.
In that respect, last week’s harsh and unprecedented denunciation of Sharon’s policies by Ayalon and three other former chiefs of Shin Bet have clearly encouraged peace activists, as did a similarly harsh assessment of hard-line policies several weeks ago by Israeli’s armed forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon.
All of these developments have created a sense of growing concern among pro-Likud hawks both here and in Israel. Sharon and right-wing members of his cabinet denounced Beilin and other sponsors of the Geneva Accord virtually as traitors but that criticism has since grown quieter, particularly after the declarations of Yaalon and the former Shin Beth directors.
The US Anti-Defamation League and the far-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), to which many neo-conservatives in the Bush administration have ties, also strongly denounced both plans and Powell’s endorsement of the Geneva Accord.
The ZOA also criticize Wolfowitz’s remarks and called on Bush to disavow them.
Although Wolfowitz is widely seen as the highest-ranking neo-conservative in the Bush administration, unlike most neo-conservatives, he has never been closely identified with Likud or US groups that are particularly close to Israel’s right-wing party or the settlement movement.
Mainstream Jewish organizations here, such as the American Jewish Committee, have not taken a position on any of the plans or on the statements of Powell and Wolfowitz.
(Inter Press Service)