TEL AVIV, Israel -- A leading Israeli liberal is cobbling together a new political movement that he hopes will replace the hobbled Labor Party as the leading Israeli force for peace.
Despite the strong support for hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israelis would also back a return to peacemaking and the swift creation of a Palestinian state, said Yossi Beilin, a key architect of the Israel-PLO accords in the 1990s.
"People are ready for two states for the two peoples, and are even ready that Jerusalem will host the two capitals," Beilin said in an interview with The Associated Press.
And although Yasser Arafat has been discredited in the eyes of many Israelis after 20 months of seemingly unstoppable violence, he remains the only viable Palestinian partner for a renewed peace push, Beilin said.
"We are faced with a Palestinian leadership which is problematic, which has made many mistakes, but is still pragmatic and still ready to negotiate," said Beilin. "The alternative is much, much worse," he added, referring to Islamic fundamentalists.
Beilin, who has opposed his Labor Party's participation as junior partner in Sharon's coalition, on Monday announced a new political movement called "Shahar," or "Dawn," and is also a Hebrew acronym for "peace, education welfare."
In the interview, he said talks were under way to unite behind it several groups, including a dovish religious party, a Russian immigrants party, Israeli-Arab groups and Meretz, a party with 10 of the 120 parliament seats.
Meretz spokesman Yossi Gazit confirmed the effort.
"We want to open lines and create something new based on us, with Beilin and others," Gazit said. The new party was needed "because the Labor Party is falling apart -- it is looking and behaving like a second best of Sharon's Likud Party."
Beilin stopped short of formally leaving Labor, and said the party would be welcome to join his movement if it ousted Binyamin Ben-Eliezer -- Sharon's defense minister -- as party leader.
"The defense minister to Sharon cannot be an alternative to Sharon," Beilin said. If the retired general is not replaced, then Labor will split, its dovish wing will join the new alliance, and it will outpoll what's left of Labor in the next elections, he added.
Labor spokeswoman Gili Tamir downplayed the threat, saying Beilin's close association with peace accords that have unraveled was, if anything, a liability. "He has proven that he is irrelevant," she said. "No harm has been done to Labor."
The cerebral former journalist and justice minister is considered by many naive for his insistent belief in the power of peace talks and pragmatism, and his move was met with some gentle derision by pundits as well.
"Beilin is a deep-thinking politician who goes for big things," wrote commentator Ofer Shelah in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "But his problem is that he sometimes forgets that a public act needs a public."
Still, Beilin boasts a history of turning the marginal into mainstream.
His contacts with the then-boycotted PLO helped led to the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the 1993 Oslo Accords.
In 1995 he held a series of meetings with Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, which resulted in a peace outline that was similar to proposals five years later by then-Premier Ehud Barak.
Those proposals included a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with a foothold in Jerusalem. Israelis considered that U.S.-backed offer far-reaching, but the sides could not agree on the details or on the Palestinian demand for a return of war refugees and their descendants to Israel.
About 2,000 people have been killed in the violence that erupted in September 2000, three-quarters of them Palestinians. Sharon, who ousted Barak in elections last year, removed Barak's offers from the table, refuses to meet with Arafat and speaks of a more limited long-term interim settlement.
That, said Beilin, would be a "huge, huge mistake. ... The problem with the Oslo process was that it was so long (and) it was actually hostage to the extremists on both sides who could torpedo it easily by using violence."
"People on both sides are sick and tired of the current situation," he said. "They hate each other's guts ... (but) they are ready to make peace ... if they are just led by the right people."