- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Israelis and Palestinians who helped draft the so-called Geneva Initiative, a peace plan created in secret during a three-year period and publicly released in November, said there is growing popular support in Israel for a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict.

Speaking at a conference this week at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, they also called for increased U.S. support for the Geneva plan.

However, they said the outlook for short-term progress remained bleak.

“Without the American lead, probably nothing will happen,” said former Israel Defense Chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. “But given the situation in Iraq and the upcoming American elections, 2004 cannot be an effective year.”

The Washington conference took place shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon endorsed a withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and hinted at changing the path of a security fence being built to separate most of the West Bank from Israel.

Delegates at the discussion were cautious in their endorsement of Mr. Sharon’s latest actions.

“The Gaza withdrawal is a step in the right direction, as long as it is not the last step,” said Urs Ziswiler, a former ambassador and adviser to the Swiss Foreign Ministry.

Some participants expressed fears that Mr. Sharon’s announcements could be misinterpreted as a sign of acquiescence to pressure from Palestinian militants, and they urged multinational diplomatic engagement to help prevent further violence.

Balancing these fears was a sense that historical pressures hindered the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership from making progress toward peace, with implicit criticism of Mr. Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Representatives remained positive on the importance of the Geneva Initiative, calling it the final stage of President Bush’s earlier “road map” peace plan and the most detailed outline to emerge from decades of negotiations.

The plan provides specific guidelines on division of territory, provisional security forces and the establishment of a separate Palestinian state — all under the framework of international implementation.

Mr. Sharon has rejected the initiative, while the Bush administration has expressed cautious interest.

The Geneva plan does not address the plight of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendents who wish to return to what is now Israel.

Palestinian delegate Salah Abdul Shafi described the omission as painful, but “the only possible compromise.”

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, a top aide to President Carter during negotiations in the 1970s that led to peace between Israel and Egypt, said a solution to the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict would provide a model to the region.

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