How to get Mideast peace talks out of 'dark corner' of Israeli settlements

The Geneva Initiative, a group of prominent Israelis and Palestinians, on Tuesday presented a blueprint for comprehensive peace. Next step: public debate.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, laughs with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell, during their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday.
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A group representing prominent Israelis and Palestinians, including former negotiators, released a "cookbook" for peace on Tuesday designed to help decisionmakers reach a two-state solution to the conflict.

The release of the Geneva Accord and Annexes coincided with the visit of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who met Tuesday with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He is just the kind of diplomatic "chef" that the group, known as the Geneva Initiative, is targeting.

"This book has the recipes for anyone who wants to cook up a peace agreement," said Gadi Baltiansky, director general of the Geneva Initiative – Tel Aviv. "We believe that by putting such a book on the table, it will make it more feasible for decisionmakers to reach the correct conclusions, and it will assure the Israeli and Palestinian publics that peace can and should be reached."

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Expanding on a skeleton peace initiative from 2003, the new 400-page document provides detailed solutions to some of the thorniest issues, including borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. While the group acknowledges that its proposals are unlikely to be accepted wholesale by the Israeli government, the existence of a peace deal acceptable to mainstream Israelis and Palestinians can point the way for negotiators – and, its authors hope – result in more comprehensive discussions.

"I hope that we will get out of the dark corner of freezing settlements and into the light of negotiations," said Yossi Beilin, a former negotiator and one of the most prominent Israelis involved in the Geneva Initiative.

Maps, timetables, and list of weapons

The most basic parameters of the expanded peace deal were agreed upon during the 2003 initiative, but this version comes with a great deal of details which are meant to be examined and debated publicly. It includes maps, timetables for Israeli troop withdrawals, and a list of weapons that the future Palestinian state would be barred from having. Jerusalem, now under Israeli control, would be divided into Yerushalayim and Al Quds, respective names for the city in Hebrew and Arabic.

According to the plan, about 75 percent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be able to stay in place, particularly those in large "settlement blocs" that would be annexed to Israel. The others would have to be evacuated; Mr. Baltiansky estimated that would involve uprooting approximately 100,000 people.

The opening of a safe passage route between Gaza and the West Bank would have to be delayed indefinitely, the Israeli team said, given Hamas's hostile position towards Israel.

Next step: public debate

The Geneva Initiative, funded by Swiss and other European aid, was launched in Switzerland during the violent and seemingly hopeless years of the second Palestinian intifada, which began in September 2000. Organized by former negotiators who worked on the Oslo Accords, it was seen as a counterpoint to prevalent Israeli opinion that Oslo had failed.

In past years, many critics dismissed the Geneva Initiative as unrepresentative of officials in power. But its founders say they have put the feasibility of a mutually acceptable peace deal on the map and have become a key reference point for negotiations. Moreover, the initiative compiled its research on specific issues of conflict – such as water, refugees, and borders – with the help of former and current negotiators.

As a next step, the Geneva Initiative members said Tuesday it would hold forums in different cities around the world to try to gain from others' experiences in conflict resolution. The first conference, on water issues, will be held in Prague in October.

Timing with Mitchell's trip coincidental

The Israeli side of the Geneva Initiative decided to present the plan to the public and Israeli leaders ahead of the Jewish New Year on Friday, as well as an expected power triad next week between US President Barack Obama, Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian team plans to release its version gradually in the weeks to come.

Nidal Foqaha, the head of the Geneva Initiative – Ramallah, says that some copies of the new, more detailed plan are already being released to Palestinian officials. There won't be a launch event for Palestinians, he said.

"We hope it will have a positive impact on Mr. Mitchell's visit, but we never considered the timing to be in parallel," Mr. Foqaha said. "The people whom we most want to impact are the different stakeholders – and the Israeli and Palestinian publics."

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