Organizers of Initiative Seek U.S. Support

By Ori Nir

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — The leaders of an Israeli-Palestinian grassroots peace initiative came to Washington this week seeking support for their undertaking to revive peace efforts on the basis of mutually accepted principles to guide a final settlement between the parties.

The two leaders of the initiative, Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet general security service, and Sari Nusseibeh, president of Jerusalem’s Al Quds University, met with senior Bush administration officials this week, attempting to convince them to sign on to a set of principles that they say are supported by a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Speaking with the Forward after a series of meetings with State Department, Defense Department and National Security Council officials, Ayalon and Nusseibeh said they are hoping the Bush administration will adopt their position that a well-defined “vision” for a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vital for the success of any peace process.

“We have realized that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are incapable to achieve an agreement without a clear vision for a permanent settlement, so we are trying to go backwards: back from the future and back to the people,” Ayalon said.

Their visit comes against the backdrop of last week’s announcement by a group of Palestinian Authority officials and members of Israel’s former Labor-led government that they had drafted a detailed proposal, complete with maps, for settling outstanding issues in the conflict. Unlike the Geneva Understandings, as the newest proposal is called, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon document consists of six principles typed a single page.

The two separate initiatives, which may gain added traction as a result of the collapse of the American-backed “road map” peace plan, aim to put pressure on both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships — as well as on the United States and its international allies — to resume peace negotiations based on an agreed final destination.

Ayalon and Nusseibeh’s Washington visit also coincided with that of three Palestinian Fatah activists, two of them members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Fatah is the leading faction in the Palestinian political arena and the chief constituent group of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The three, Ahmed Ghanaim, Kadoura Fares and Hatem Abdel Kader, widely considered authentic representatives of Fatah’s young guard, which is often critical of Yasser Arafat and his veteran PLO colleagues, are in town as guests of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, where they spoke Wednesday.

Several right-wing Jewish activists criticized their visit to Washington and their meetings with State Department officials, citing their affiliation with Fatah’s Tanzim militia, which Israel says is responsible for terrorist attacks. The Tanzim’s leader, Marwan Barghouti, is on trial in Israel, accused of masterminding deadly terrorist attacks.

One of the three Fatah activists, Fares, participated in the talks in Jordan last week that led to the conclusion of the Geneva Understandings, a fact that prompted speculation that his visit to Washington was related to that initiative.

For their part, Ayalon and Nusseibeh said that their visit was not related to the Geneva Understandings nor to the visit of the three Fatah activists. “We are here to raise consciousness and raise funds for our initiative,” said Ayalon, a retired major general who commanded Israel’s navy and is one of the country’s most admired war heroes.

Ayalon and Nusseibeh’s initiative is a first-of-its-kind effort to put parallel popular pressure on both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to negotiate peace. Their “vision” has been circulated among Israelis and Palestinians for several months in the form of a petition. More than 90,000 Israelis have already signed the document, as have almost 60,000 Palestinians, and they hope to collect at least twice as many signatures, they said.

Their “Statement of Principles” for a two-state solution to the conflict stipulates that the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state would be based on Israel’s pre-1967 border, or Green Line, with land-swap modifications, mainly to accommodate large blocs of Jewish settlements adjacent to the Green Line. It envisions a division of sovereignty over Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in an open Jerusalem, which will serve as the capital of both states. The formula’s most controversial clause among Palestinians is the one denying Palestinian refugees the so-called “right of return” into Israel.

Nusseibeh, a leading Palestinian intellectual who for a short time served as the PLO’s representative in Jerusalem by appointment of Yasser Arafat, said he decided to launch the initiative with Ayalon because he realized that the “formal peace process,” involving negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders is too weak to overcome the violence and intransigence of extremists on both sides.

“Both peoples have to give a helping hand to their leaderships to achieve peace,” he said.

Indeed, both leaderships have been standoffish at best toward efforts to articulate principles for a final settlement.

Arafat and his current prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, said they support the Geneva initiative but did not officially adopt it as P.A. policy. Arafat has said that the P.A. “will make every effort to support this initiative,” but did not say that it reflects official P.A. policy or that the Palestinians who signed it were officially representing the authority.

The Israeli government has not taken a public stance on the Ayalon-Nusseibeh initiative and has angrily rejected the Swiss-sponsored Geneva Understandings as an attempt to undercut the legitimacy and authority of a democratically elected Israeli government.

Meanwhile, Washington has not expressed an official position on the Ayalon-Nusseibeh project, but it has turned a cold shoulder to the Geneva document. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a briefing: “The road map is the best way to move forward on [the peace process], and that continues to be where we put our emphasis…. Our view is that the road map is the way forward, and that’s what we’ll continue to work on.”

Ayalon, who had negotiated joint security arrangements with Palestinian officials in the past, said that the vision of a future peace deal is crucial not only to spur negotiations, but also to entice Palestinians to confront terrorism. “The Palestinians have always said to us: ‘We will confront terrorism only if we have a clear political vision of statehood. We won’t do it just in order to protect Jews,’” Ayalon said. “We can’t ask them to risk a civil war without showing them what the purpose is.”

Nusseibeh said that their initiative is not designed as a substitute for the American-backed road map. On the contrary, he said, “Our objective is that this [vision] will become the last page of the road map.”

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