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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Mid-East's 'virtual' peace deal

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

An unofficial or "virtual" agreement between moderate Israelis and Palestinians has raised hopes of an eventual settlement, but also a storm of protest from Israeli Government ministers.

The agreement was initialled in Jordan over the weekend and there are plans for it to be signed in Geneva next month.

The Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock would be under Palestinian sovereignty
The "Geneva Accord", as Israeli papers are calling it, has no hope of being put into effect in the foreseeable future.

The present reality is one of conflict not compromise, but the document does provide an alternative vision and something to which those who want to compromise can cling.

It also provides an alternative to the current negotiating strategy embodied by the so-called roadmap.

The roadmap seeks to create secure conditions under which a settlement could take place.

The Geneva agreement reverses that, by agreeing on a settlement first, which should then lead to peace.

The agreement settles the outstanding issues, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the control of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

Its basic framework looks like this:

  • Palestinians would recognise Israel, which would withdraw to its 1967 borders with one or two agreed land transfers

  • Palestinians would in effect give up the right of return for the millions of refugees who left or were expelled during previous wars. A few might go back, but only with Israeli agreement. Others would get some compensation

  • Jerusalem would be divided administratively though not physically. The most sensitive site, the Temple Mount as Jews call it, or the Noble Sanctuary as Muslims know it, would be under Palestinian sovereignty. An international force would guarantee access for visitors. Israelis would retain the Western Wall (the so-called Wailing Wall) below

  • Israel would keep some settlements, especially around Jerusalem, but the large settlement of Ariel in the centre of the West Bank would be included in the Palestinian area

  • The Palestinian state would be demilitarised.

The key compromises seem to be over the right of return and the division of Jerusalem.

By giving up their cherished "right of return", Palestinians would abandon hopes of establishing a unitary state of Palestine.

By formally giving up the Temple Mount, Israelis would accept the division of Jerusalem which they have always opposed.

The negotiators

The people behind this document are familiar ones, known from earlier attempts at marking out the way forward, especially the Oslo agreement.

One thing they won't be able to say is that there is no [negotiating] partner
Yossi Beilin
On the Israeli side, the former Labour Minister, Yossi Beilin, is the main figure, but there are others including Amram Mitzna, who briefly led the Labour Party, and author Amos Oz.

Yossi Beilin commented that his critics would say that "this is a bad agreement, that we caved in and gave away everything, but one thing they won't be able to say is that there is no [negotiating] partner."

On the Palestinian side, the leading figure is Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former Palestinian minister who called this "the start of a new era".

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, is said to have been kept informed, though his level of support is not clear.


But the "new era" is a long way off.

Israeli ministers have lined up to denounce the accord.

There is a government in Israel and everything else is virtual at best
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom

The Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, said: "There is a government in Israel and everything else is virtual at best."

The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself said: "There is a roadmap and it is not helpful to make people think there might be something else."

Indeed, the thinking in the Israeli Government seems to be more along the lines expressed by one minister, Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, last week.

He said that an agreement with Palestinians was "impossible" and that "we are much closer to a unilateral process that will create irreversible facts".

That means that Israel alone would decide where its borders should be.

The gulf between that view and the one enshrined in the unofficial accord is wide, perhaps unbridgeable.

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