Tuesday, December 2, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday brushed aside Israeli objections to planned U.S. meetings with the architects of the “Geneva initiative,” an alternative Israeli-Palestinian peace plan launched in Switzerland this week.

“I am the American secretary of state. I have an obligation … to listen to individuals who have interesting ideas,” said Secretary of State Colin L. PowelI yesterday.

“[This] in no way undercuts our strong support for the state of Israel,” Mr. Powell said.

Chief negotiators of the unofficial plan, former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, were to meet with State Department and National Security Council (NSC) officials today.

“I do not know why I or anyone else in the U.S. government should deny ourselves the opportunity to hear from others who are committed to peace and who have ideas,” Mr. Powell told reporters while on a visit to Tunisia.

Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert yesterday had delivered unusually blunt criticism of the proposed meeting, telling Israeli press it would be an “incorrect decision.”

“I have my doubts about [Mr. Powells] judgment on this affair,” he said.

Mr. Powell’s sharp response was the third time in recent weeks that Washington has distanced itself from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, reflecting the frustration that the Bush administration is experiencing dealing with the Sharon government.

Shortly after the United States joined the U.N. Security Council in November to endorse the stalled “road map” peace plan despite objections from Mr. Sharon’s government, President Bush bluntly told Israel it should not prejudice final peace negotiations with “the placement of walls and fences.”

Mr. Sharon’s insistence on constructing the combination fence-ditch-razor-wire security barrier was met this week with a U.S. decision to cut $289.5 million — out of a total of $9 billion over three years — from loan guarantees to Israel.

Nevertheless, analysts in Washington do not think the recent frostiness will threaten the underlying strong relationship between the United States and Israel.

“I think they definitely have some tensions now, but that does not reflect a crisis in the relationship,” said Rob Malley, Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group that sponsored international support for the Geneva plan.

“The decision to meet with the Geneva team is a way to put some pressure on the prime minister and say, ‘If you’re not going to move on issues that are included in the road map and that the U.S. has raised consistently, the vacuum will be filled in ways you might not like,’” Mr. Malley said.

“It is calibrated pressure,” he said.

The Geneva initiative and the less-talked-about but similar People’s Voice peace petition campaign “are pain-free instruments for the administration to use to send its signals of displeasure to both Sharon and [Yasser] Arafat,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

Fifty-eight global leaders including former presidents, prime ministers and defense ministers already have declared their support for the Geneva accord, created in secret during the past two years.

But Mr. Sharon’s right-wing government has dismissed the proposal, and Mr. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority has only limply endorsed the ideas.

Although Mr. Powell did not specify whether he personally would meet with the authors of the “Geneva initiative,” one senior official suggested to Agence France-Presse that he would.

“It’s in the works, and all signs are go,” the official said, adding that the meeting almost certainly would be held ahead of Mr. Powell’s planned talks on Friday afternoon with Jordanian King Abdullah II.

A senior State Department official emphasized that an NSC official also would be present at the meeting to be attended by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns.

“That’s important,” the official said.

“This is not just the ‘Peace Now’ State Department doing this,” the official said. “The White House is involved as well.”

A coalition of Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders claiming to represent about 100 million Americans yesterday urged Mr. Bush to actively support the Geneva initiative and to resurrect his “road map” to Middle East peace.

The National Interreligious Leadership Delegation included Roman Catholic Cardinals Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington and William Keeler of Baltimore; Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios; Islamic Society of North America Secretary-General Sayyid Syeed; Rabbi Janet Marder, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and the presiding bishops of the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches.

The group urged Mr. Bush to return a presidential envoy to the region and suggested that U.S. observers do a better job of monitoring compliance by both sides to the road map’s objectives.

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