Israel warns Powell not to meet 'Geneva Accord' proponents

Thursday, December 4, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israel's vice premier says Colin Powell should not meet organizers of an unofficial Mideast peace treaty, arguing the Secretary of State would not help the actual peace process.

Launched Monday in Geneva, the informal agreement was the result of three years of talks between former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators working in private without representing their governments.

The U.S. government has been generally supportive of the unofficial Geneva initiative, while insisting that the "road map" peace plan is the only one on the table.

Powell said he would still attend a meeting with the unofficial plan's architects. The meeting would not contradict the U.S. commitment to the "road map" outlining the establishment of a Palestinian state, he said.

"I don't know why I or anyone else in the U.S. government should deny ourselves the opportunity to hear from others who have ideas with respect to peace," Powell said Tuesday during a visit to Tunisia.

He added that the meeting "in no way undercuts our strong support" for Israel and the road map.

No meeting arranged

The accord's organizers flew from Geneva to Washington, where they hoped to meet Powell. However, as of late Tuesday, a meeting had not yet been finally arranged.

Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that Powell would be "making a mistake" by meeting the plan's organizers, led by former Israeli Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin and Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

"I think he is not being useful to the process," Olmert told Israel Radio. "I am certain of his friendship to Israel, but I would cast doubt on his judgment in this matter."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described the hypothetical agreement as subversive.

The deal proposes borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state close to Israel's borders before the 1967 Mideast war, giving the Palestinians almost all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and part of Jerusalem.

It calls for the removal of most Israeli settlements there and severely limits the so-called "right of return" for Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the 1948-49 war that followed Israel's creation and their descendants. It also divides sovereignty in Jerusalem.

The Israelis are concerned that a Powell meeting would lend legitimacy to the accord.

The "road map" leads through three stages to a Palestinian state, but it is a formula for negotiations, while the Geneva Accord spells out solutions to the touchiest issues, such as the refugees.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat praised the virtual deal, sending a message to the Geneva gathering that called the accord "a brave initiative that opens the door to peace." He initially had been lukewarm.

Militant Palestinian groups denounced the accord and called the Palestinian negotiators traitors, objecting to concessions over refugees' right of return.

In the Arab world, the newspaper "Oman" praised the accord, describing it as the first true Palestinian or Arab document that gives a comprehensive vision for a solution to all the issues and paves the way for a Palestinian state.

Associated Press reporter George Gedda in Washington contributed to this report.

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