Trial Mideast peace deal offers template

Israelis and Palestinians gathered in Geneva Monday for a signing ceremony.

Israelis and Palestinians gathered in Geneva Monday to sign an unofficial peace agreement that could breathe new life into official efforts to end this conflict.

The Geneva accord may not lead to a formal peace agreement; Israeli officials dismiss it as "subversive" and Palestinian officials seem to see it as a tool for pressuring Israel.

But analysts say the accord demonstrates to both war-weary peoples that a negotiated settlement is possible. They say its painstaking discussion of details will help Israelis and Palestinians confront difficult issues when official talks restart. And they argue that the initiative, along with another grass-roots peace effort, is prompting the US to reengage in the conflict.

"The Geneva accord is significant, not on the immediate political level because the people involved are not officials, but it's an important contribution because it helps further narrow the gap on final status issues," says Palestinian cabinet member Ghassan Khatib. "It has shifted the debate between and within the two societies to the substantial aspects of the conflict, rather than the symptoms."

Negotiated over the past two years by participants in the Oslo peace process, the accord differs from the earlier initiative in its detailed, upfront proposals for settling all issues. Israel would withdraw from most of the occupied territories except for agreed land exchanges on a 1-to-1 ratio. Palestinians would create a state with a capital in East Jerusalem. Sovereignty over the city's holy sites would be divided between the two.

Controversially, the document effectively waives the Palestinian "right of return," though it doesn't contain those actual words. United Nations Resolution 194 says that Palestinians who left or were forced to leave their homes in the 1948 war should be permitted to return or be compensated. Both sides have reacted angrily to this section of the accord, with Israelis saying it is too vague and Palestinians arguing that no one can renounce refugee claims.

The signing, which has drawn strong international support, punctuates a period of official diplomatic silence. Israeli officials disparaged the accord, but it has piqued the interest of ordinary Israelis, with 31 percent in favor, 38 percent opposed and 20 percent undecided, according to a Ha'aretz newspaper poll published Monday.

Palestinian militants, disturbed about the "right of return" issue, responded by threatening participants in the accord talks and, for a time, physically barring them from leaving for Geneva.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has not endorsed the accord, but permitted Palestinian officials to take part and attend the ceremony.

His larger goal may be to pressure Mr. Sharon by widening divisions among Israelis. Though 52 percent of Israelis still support Sharon, according to the Ha'aretz poll, there is increasing criticism of his performance, most significantly from the security establishment.

Mr. Arafat may have no intention of adhering to the principles of the accord, but the agreement does stand as a rebuttal to Sharon's insistence that Palestinians are uninterested in peace. It also comes as Palestinians near the announcement of a broad cease-fire.

These developments coincide with a visit to Israel and Jordan by William Burns, US envoy to the Middle East, to try to restart the "road map" peace plan.

Paul Patin, spokesman for the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, characterized Mr. Burns' trip as routine, but added that the envoy sees "a bit of a window of opportunity" for the road map, with talk of a cease-fire and of a possible meeting between Sharon and the Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

Analysts here believe the accord also plays a part. "The accord shows the US that Sharon's policies are less than fully popular with Israelis and has given them impetus in their own efforts," says analyst Yossi Alpher.

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