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Unofficial Mideast peace initiative unveiled

Much-criticized plan calls for concessions on both sides

From Matthew Chance

Former Palestinian Information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, right, and former Israeli Justice minister Yossi Beilin at the signing ceremony for the Geneva Accord.
The plan's architects, former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, right, and former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, grasp hands.

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Geneva Accord

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- Saying their long-suffering region needs to achieve peace through painful compromises, and facing heated protests at home, dozens of Israelis and Palestinians gathered Monday in Geneva to launch an unofficial peace plan they dubbed the "Geneva accord."

In a ceremony attended by numerous dignitaries, including former U.S. President Carter, the plan's backers launched the agreement after two years of negotiations and secret meetings.

Thirty delegates from each side marked their support for the agreement in a candle-lighting ceremony. The Israeli side included politicians who oppose Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, while the Palestinians included ministers close to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The plan, which calls for significant concessions on both sides of the Mideast conflict, has no official backing from the Palestinian or Israeli administrations.

Among other things, the plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all but about 2 percent of the West Bank. It also calls for an end to attacks by Palestinian militant groups, and for a divided Jerusalem to be capital of both Israel and a proposed Palestinian state.

Both sides lay claim to the ancient city, which was divided between Israeli and Arab control until 1967, when it was captured by Israeli troops during the Six-Day War.

The Palestinians want the eastern part of Jerusalem as their capital, and Israelis insist that the city will remain forever undivided and under Israeli control.

The agreement also discusses the so-called "right of return" for Palestinians and descendants of refugees who left or were forced to leave Israel when the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Palestinians demand the right to return to those lands that are now part of Israel.

Other peace plans, including the so-called "road map" to peace -- backed by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union -- put such issues on hold until much later in the process.

Plan's specifics in dispute

Israeli and Palestinian officials gave different readings of what the unofficial Geneva plan calls for.

At home, both the governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat oppose the plan.

Crowds of Palestinians in the Mideast lambasted those taking part in the Geneva meeting, calling the Palestinians there "traitors." Divisions within Fatah led four Palestinian officials -- including two negotiators who helped draft the agreement -- to miss the signing ceremony.

Among the chief Palestinian complaints is the contention that the plan calls for giving up the right of return.

On the other side, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told CNN that the plan rewards militant groups that have killed hundreds of innocent civilians.

"After three years of one of the most bloody suicide bombing campaigns in the history of terror, led by Mr. Arafat and Hamas, we find Israeli and good-intentioned leaders like former President Carter rewarding terror," he said. "It will not save lives. It will lead to more loss of life in the future."

Also, he said, it fails to solve the key issues.

"There is no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state -- the simplest demand," he said.

Despite claims to the contrary, he said, the language of the agreement does not call for Palestinians to give up the right of return.

"It gives Israel certain technical control over the rate of implementation, but that is not the issue," he said.

Barak said Israelis are ready to make peace "at a very, very painful price," and Palestinians must be willing as well.

"Somehow, this fictitious agreement creates an illusion that somehow, magically, it is Sharon and not Arafat that is responsible for the fact we are not moving toward peace," he said.

'Vicious cycle of violence'

Former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo were the plan's architects.

"This time of bickering should be over," said Beilin, who called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to "return immediately to the negotiating table without preconditions."

He said commitment from both sides to this unofficial plan would make it easier to begin implementing the road map.

"We are putting our joint agreed proposal on the desks of decision-makers as a possible option to end the vicious cycle of violence," he said.

Rabbo added, "Today we are extending our hands in peace for peace. Our critics say that officials should make such agreements, not representatives of civil society. We could not agree more. But what do we do if officials do not meet, if governments do not negotiate? We cannot wait and watch as the future of our two nations slides deeper into catastrophe.

"This is the simple solution for this conflict, and it is the only possible solution," he said. "Why wait? Why make more blood sacrifices just to reach this same solution that we can achieve today?"

Said Carter, "This agreement would resolve the conflict's most critical issues, including border deliberation, Israeli settlements, the excessive occupation of Palestinian lands, the future of Jerusalem and its holy places, and the troubling question of Palestinian refugees. It is unlikely that we will ever see a more promising foundation for peace."

Letters praising the peace effort were read from officials with the United Nations, the European Union and numerous nations.

Although both Palestinians and Israelis spoke in Geneva, many of the speeches revolved around condemnation of Israel, while relatively few addressed Palestinian terrorism.

CNN's Matthew Chance contributed to this report.

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