Spark of hope for Mideast peace

The Egyptian-brokered effort for renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire that collapsed last August has failed after a week of talks in Cairo.

The newest Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, was ready to agree to a ceasefire, but the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad were not. Now, in Israel, some of the governing Likud party are ready, apparently with the tacit support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza. But the more hawkish elements of Likud are not.

The deepening factional divisions on both sides, with Sharon's popularity dipping below 40 percent, underscore the near bankruptcy of the decade of the "peace process," so called. And they help to explain why the freelance effort of a group of Israelis and Palestinians out of power has stirred so much excitement in the region and beyond.

In the Geneva Accord, so called, Yossi Beilin, former Israeli minister of justice, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, former Palestinian information minister, have boldly stepped in where most politicians fear to tread.

They have addressed what Israeli author Amos Oz calls "the radioactive core" of the conflict: issues of permanent borders, division of Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The 47-page accord doesn't speak of a right of return, but of a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem outside Israeli borders. That's the kind of issue on which previous peace efforts have foundered, even when - or especially when - they seemed closest to success.

The unofficial Israeli-Palestinian understanding is not so much a formula for marriage as a formula for an amicable divorce between two peoples long locked in a violent embrace. It suggests a process that is not top down, but bottom up. It seeks to generate enough pressure from the war weary on both sides to force the hands of their failed leaders.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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