Geneva gets U.S. officials jumping

washington | For a peace agreement that even its framers admit is “virtual,” the Geneva accords is getting plenty of real traction in Washington and among American Jews.

Leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements joined Muslim and Christian groups in an interfaith appeal on Tuesday, Dec. 2, urging the Bush administration to rededicate itself to Israeli-Palestinian peace, citing the Geneva proposal as one model.

The two lead negotiators of the unofficial peace proposal, Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo and Israeli opposition figure Yossi Beilin, were set to hold back-to-back meetings Friday, Dec. 5, with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense.

Considering that Wolfowitz and Powell usually are at odds on matters of foreign policy, the meetings are a sign of the administration’s encouragement of the Geneva accords.

It’s a trend that clearly has Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government worried. Israeli officials were lobbying hard against the meetings. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert questioned Powell’s judgement, calling the meeting with Beilin and Abed Rabbo a “mistake.”

In response, U.S. officials say they remain committed to the internationally backed “road map” peace plan, which envisions an end to terrorism and a Palestinian state within three years. Israeli officials say they were reassured by that message.

“Even though the Americans are encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to discuss and look for creative alternatives, the only policy that has been endorsed is the road map,” Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said.

The road map is stalled however, and American Jewish officials say Israel’s best chance at undercutting the Geneva proposal is if current efforts to revive the road map succeed.

“It’s hard to complain about people talking about peace when there’s not much else out there,” said one American Jewish official who deals regularly with Israeli officials.

American sponsors of Beilin and Abed Rabbo’s visit to Washington and New York this week said the duo’s sudden popularity had come as a pleasant surprise.

Together with criticism of Sharon’s policies from top Israeli security officials, support for the Geneva proposal “collectively sends a signal that simply muddying along with the bloody status quo is not acceptable,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, which is organizing some of Beilin’s Washington appearances.

Sharon complains that Beilin’s team has no authority to negotiate in Israel’s name and concedes far too much, including land swaps, the dismantlement of several heavily populated Jewish settlements and a division of Jerusalem.

Yet it is precisely those details that make the accords attractive to Bush administration officials frustrated by the reluctance of

Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to commit to detailed solutions for the most controversial issues dividing the sides.

“We have welcomed efforts such as these, such as that embodied by the drafters of this Geneva plan, to introduce issues, discuss issues and consider issues that have to be dealt with down the road,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday, Dec. 1.

In a New York Times opinion article Monday, Dec. 1, Beilin and Abed Rabbo said the accords is a “virtual” agreement for decision-makers to do with as they please.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) are sponsoring a resolution applauding the Geneva accords and other initiatives and urging Bush to “embrace” them. A similar resolution is circulating in the House of Representatives.

More significant are the mainstream Jewish groups signing on to an initiative that Israel’s government has described as naive at best and treasonous at worst.

The interfaith appeal, called “Walk the Road to Peace,” calls on the United States to immediately “focus public attention and support on” proposed solutions, and cites the Geneva accords. Leaders of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements have signed on.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.