Unofficial peace push in Mideast

Some Israeli and Palestinian public figures, increasingly convinced that their governments are unable or unwilling to make peace, are trying to do it from the bottom up.

The attention drawn by two new initiatives - one is a drive to collect signatories to a set of principles for a peace deal; another is a proposed final agreement ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - suggests that many Israelis and Palestinians see no end in sight to their conflict and no prospect of outside intervention in the near term.

"In general the Americans are not thinking in terms of moving forward in any dramatic fashion in this area," says Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian university president and a founder of the drive to collect signatures.

"Our leaders," says Mr. Nusseibeh's partner-in-peace Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's domestic security service, "[have] lost the courage to say what they believe in, and they are expecting us to tell them."

These initiatives have been met with outright rejection from the Israeli government and encouragement from the Palestinian Authority (PA), but they may be invigorating peace-oriented discussions among the two peoples. Last weekend more than 100,000 people attended a Tel Aviv rally in memory of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who pursued a peace deal with the Palestinians until he was assassinated in 1995. The crowd was the largest gathering of dovish Israelis in several years.

A 'useful noise'

The proposed final agreement, says former Palestinian Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib, is in particular "creating useful noise, especially in Israel."

Drafted by one-time Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo and one-time Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin, neither of whom are currently members of their respective governments, the so-called Geneva Accord lays out in detail how the two sides could coexist.

The document builds on the Israeli-Palestinian talks that took place during the final days of the Clinton administration and attempts to overturn the current logic of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: that small gestures will build trust that will lead to a final deal. The Geneva Accord goes all the way to a final deal all at once, spelling out, for instance, the minutiae of how cargo entering the ports of a state of Palestine will be inspected to determine whether it is free of illegal weapons.

Like the set of principles drawn up by Mr. Ayalon and Nusseibeh, the Accord envisions a state of Palestine situated in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip (with land swaps to make up for settlement areas that would be annexed to Israel) and a shared administration of Jerusalem.

The accord foresees the two sides splitting sovereignty over Jerusalem's holiest sites; the Ayalon/Nusseibeh principles say neither side will have sovereignty.

Both rule out Israeli settlement in the Palestinian state. Both specify a demilitarized Palestine.

The two documents treat the issue of Palestinian refugees - those dispossessed from their homes in what is now Israel and their descendants - slightly differently. The Ayalon/Nusseibeh principles say there will be no Palestinian "right of return" to Israel; the Geneva Accord would allow Israel to determine how many Palestinian refugees it will accept and says that living in the state of Palestine "shall be the right of all Palestinian refugees."

The Accord, which was unveiled in mid-October, drew scorn from right-wing Israelis and the Israeli government. But even the Jerusalem Post, an English-language daily that criticized the plan, editorialized that the accord had emerged because of the vacuum of diplomatic activity. "To quit the field is to leave it to others," the paper said. "Surely this is something the government could have grasped a little sooner."

The more enthusiastic response from the Palestinians - from PA President Yasser Arafat and key Palestinian political groups - is in part because the political leaders who pursued the peace negotiations of the 1990s are still in power among the Palestinians. In Israel, those in power today opposed the peace process.

The authors of the accord are politicians - most of the Israelis are from the dovish Labor Party, which has seen its political role shrink in recent years - but Ayalon says the aim of those backing the set of principles is to influence politicians, not replace them.

Society's role

Nusseibeh, a rumpled, tousled academic, says that in the "modern day and age, very few leaders are leading their people," and that it is up to Israeli and Palestinian civil society to demonstrate that both sides want peace. The two men say they have collected 100,000 Israeli and 60,000 Palestinian signatures in three months.

Ayalon and Nusseibeh received some support late last month from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who praised their efforts, telling an audience that "one of the keys to achieving peace is to somehow mobilize majorities on both sides so the extremists who oppose it can be isolated."

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