- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

President Bush yesterday called a new unofficial Middle East peace plan “productive” as long as it adheres to his principles that the Palestinians end terrorism and Israel pulls back settlements in land he envisions as part of a democratic Palestinian state.

“We appreciate people discussing peace,” Mr. Bush said. “We just want to make sure people understand that the principles to peace are clear.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will meet today with the architects of the so-called Geneva Accords — Yossi Beilin, a veteran Israeli negotiator, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former information minister for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The two men took it upon themselves to begin their own negotiations despite opposition from the Israeli government.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called the talks counterproductive, and Israeli Vice President Ehud Olmert said Tuesday it was a “mistake” for Mr. Powell to meet with Mr. Beilin and Mr. Rabbo.

Mr. Powell, however, embraced the talks yesterday, the first negotiations of any kind since the president’s “road map” for peace stalled amid the violence of the last several months.

“As ideas emerge, from whatever source, it seems to me not inappropriate to listen to the authors and proponents of these ideas to see what they are saying and take it into account,” Mr. Powell said in Brussels.

Mr. Beilin and Mr. Rabbo promoted their efforts to a gathering of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York yesterday, saying that vast numbers of Israelis and Palestinians “are thirsty for something like this.”

“The road map is the only game in town,” Mr. Beilin said in his address to the Council on Foreign Relations. “But it’s a game nobody is playing. You need the endgame in front of your eyes if you want to implement it.”

Mr. Beilin later said in an interview that “what we need is encouragement” for the Geneva Accords from the Bush administration.

“What Secretary Powell said in the past and President Bush said today is part of this encouragement,” Mr. Beilin said. “Israelis and Palestinians see that the American administration is supporting it — not endorsing every word, but supporting. It might have a very good impact on Israel’s support” for the plan.

Mr. Rabbo said continuing to work on the president’s road map is critical, and he and Mr. Beilin are “trying to complement it.”

“This will strengthen it and make it more credible,” Mr. Rabbo said in an interview. “We want the American administration to see that there are positive indications and new elements which will help the implementation of the road map.”

Mr. Bush’s qualified embrace of the Geneva Accords followed a meeting yesterday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the White House.

“Everyone knows where I stand,” Mr. Bush said. “I laid out what I believe is necessary to achieve peace in the Middle East.”

Those conditions are a Palestinian state “based upon democratic principles,” the president said, and one in which the leadership “is committed to defeating and dismantling the terrorist organizations who are trying to prevent a Palestinian state from emerging.”

Mr. Bush also reiterated that Israel must dismantle “the illegal settlements” in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as the security fence being constructed by Israel around Palestinian areas.

The president has faced criticism that he is neglecting the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, criticism especially leveled by candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. King Abdullah, however, credited the president for being “out front in trying to move the process forward.”

“There is a lot of difficulties on the ground at this moment, as we know, but we’ve all been working very hard behind the scenes to encourage the Palestinian prime minister to be able to have the dialogue with the Israelis,” the king said.

“We haven’t given up on the peace process. The president has been very dedicated from Day One. We appreciate his support, but it’s going to be a tough road ahead for all of us,” he said.

The Geneva Accords would give Palestinians almost all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and part of Jerusalem, drawing Israel’s borders close to what existed before the 1967 Middle East war.

In return for removing most of the Israeli settlements in those areas, the Palestinians would severely limit their “right of return” to Israeli-held land.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, normally a staunch defender of Bush administration policies, denounced the “free-lance” Geneva Accords as “dangerous” and “counterproductive.”

“An end to Palestinian terror is not a concession in peace talks; it is a prerequisite to them,” Mr. DeLay said. “There is no moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli self-defense, and until the violence stops, Israel must defend herself as she sees fit.

“The sooner all nations acknowledge this fundamental reality, the sooner peace will be possible in the Middle East,” he said. “No wonder Yasser Arafat likes this thing.”

Betsy Pisik contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York.

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