DEAL IS REACHED IN MIDEAST
By Greg Myre
Working outside official channels, prominent Israeli and Palestinian politicians have reached a symbolic peace agreement intended as a foundation for any future negotiations.
Coming at a time when Middle East peace prospects are at a low ebb, the 50-page draft agreement was reached during the weekend in Jordan by the two delegations, which include current Parliament members and former cabinet members from both sides.
But the proposal has no official blessing, and the Israeli government immediately denounced it, calling it irresponsible freelance diplomacy.
"The public rejected these same political figures," Limor Livnat, Israel's education minister, said of the Israeli delegation, led by left-wing politicians. "In no democratic country would this be acceptable."
The Palestinian Authority did not immediately comment, though the Palestinian team included senior political figures with close ties to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The Swiss Foreign Ministry supported the two-year effort, and the proposal will be formally signed at a ceremony planned for next month in Geneva. The proposal offers highly specific solutions and calls for major compromises on the sensitive issues that have torpedoed previous peace efforts.
Palestinians would receive a state that includes the entire Gaza Strip, almost all of the West Bank and a capital in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Israel has about 140 settlements in the West Bank, and the plan identifies about 20 of the larger ones that Israel would keep, with the remainder turned over to the Palestinians.
In addition, Israel would give the Palestinians land in southern Israel that is equivalent to the West Bank settlements that Israel would keep.
On another explosive issue, the Palestinians would have ultimate control over Jerusalem's most important and contested holy site, according to the plan.
An Islamic religious body already has day-to-day control of what Arabs call the Noble Sanctuary, the mosque compound in East Jerusalem built atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples.
But the peace initiative would require Israel to give up its current claim of sovereignty over the site, the holiest in Judaism, which it calls the Temple Mount. Israel would keep full control of the Western Wall, the place of prayer that borders the compound.
On another complicated question, about 4 million Palestinian war refugees and their descendants would be allowed to live in a future Palestinian state, move to a third country or receive compensation for their losses. But they could not return to their old land in Israel without Israeli consent, according to the plan.
Palestinians have always insisted on the "right of return" for refugees, and "the Palestinians tried very hard to put the word 'return' in the document," said David Kimche, a member of the Israeli delegation. The Israeli side was able to win the concession by giving the Palestinians full control of the Jerusalem holy site, he added.
The delegations began their talks from the point where Israeli-Palestinian negotiations broke off in January 2001. Both Sides have said they were closer than ever to a comprehensive agreement at that point.
However, the talks fell apart as the Mideast fighting worsened. Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister at the time, pushed hard for a deal but was roundly defeated in a February 2001 election by Ariel Sharon.
Sharon has insisted that Palestinian violence must stop before negotiations can resume, and he strongly opposed the offers made by Barak.
The agreement includes many of the elements proposed previously by Barak. But he condemned the unofficial delegation, on the grounds it is the government's job to handle negotiations.
"This is a fictitious, eccentric agreement," Barak told Israel radio, adding that it "clearly harms the interests of the state of Israel."
The Israeli delegation was led by Yossi Beilin, the justice minister in Barak's government. The most prominent Palestinian was Yasser Abed Rabbo, who has served as information minister and cabinet secretary.