A grass-roots petition for Israeli-Palestinian peace, chugging along slowly for months, took off last week when a powerful and surprising name was attached to it.
Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense who is a close adviser to President Bush, voiced strong support for a plan formulated by former Israeli Shin Bet security chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh.
"There are thousands of Israelis and Palestinians who feel the same way [that President Bush does]," Wolfowitz told a Georgetown University audience, referring to Bush's support for side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states under the "road map." peace plan.
"How do I know?" he said. "Well, right now there is a significant grass-roots movement that has already gotten some 90,000 Israeli signatures and some 60,000 Palestinian signatures in support of principles that look very much like the road map favoring a two-state solution."
Wolfowitz's comments, buried in a lengthy prepared speech, surprised Israeli, American Jewish and Palestinian officials.
Wolfowitz has a reputation as a hawk, having built his career on arguing that a failure to deal decisively with terror and tyranny can be fatal. That is precisely Israel's argument in its current dealings with terrorist groups and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Wolfowitz also has emphasized repeatedly that Israel's military strength is key to its survival.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's landslide election in February 2001 and his closeness to Bush supposedly had buried notions of an Israeli withdrawal from virtually the entire West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, which had informed peace talks at the Egyptian resort of Taba in the previous government's dying days. The Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan appears to be modeled closely on the Taba talks.
"Everyone in Israel is reading this very carefully," an Israeli official said. "If it comes from Wolfowitz, it's serious."
Wolfowitz's support could mark a sea change for the Bush administration. Until now, the hallmark of Bush's Middle East policy has been to avoid the talk of theoretical endgames that marked the Clinton administration's final months, other than a commitment to vague notions of Palestinian statehood and an end to terrorism. Instead, Bush has insisted that Israel and the Palestinians come to an accommodation before the United States steps in.
By contrast, the one-page document Wolfowitz praised envisions a division of land along the pre-1967 armistice lines, uproots Israeli settlers from a future Palestinian state, establishes a physical connection between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, divides Jerusalem and quashes Palestinian refugees' hopes for a "right of return" to Israel.
The Ayalon-Nusseibeh proposal still lacks the specifics of the Geneva accord, which was negotiated much more publicly by leading Israeli doves and Palestinian moderates.
According to leaked reports, those negotiators agreed to hand over to the Palestinians the Israeli city of Ariel in the West Bank and did not rule out a "right of return." Their agreement, due to be signed in Switzerland on Nov. 20, has been widely derided in Israel; some hawks have called it treasonous.
The noise around the Geneva accord in Israel and Europe makes the attention Ayalon and Nusseibeh are getting here stand out. The New York Times ran an editorial last week on the petition drive, mentioning the Geneva agreement only as an afterthought.
Part of the reason for the duo's sympathetic hearing is that they are less confrontational than the Geneva negotiators, and they have unassailable credentials. Ayalon shepherded the Shin Bet through one of its most difficult periods after it failed to protect Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from assassination in 1995. Nusseibeh has pressed for accommodation, despite derision from Arafat and others, and even has been beaten by Palestinians angered by his willingness to compromise.
The Israeli and Palestinian political establishments have hardly noticed the petition until now, partly because Nusseibeh and Ayalon wanted it that way. Ayalon has said they hope to garner approximately 250,000 signatures from each side before taking the petition to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
After a summer of quiet campaigning, the drive has stalled at about 60,000 signatures on the Palestinian side and 100,000 on the Israeli side. A trip to Washington last month may have been aimed at getting the kind of publicity that would give the effort a second wind.
"Our hope is to take this single page and put it inside the road map," Nusseibeh said.
Wolfowitz made exactly that connection, though experts and officials were cautious about how far the United States would go with the idea.
"It would be over-extrapolating to say that, beyond the commitment to a two-state solution -- which is already policy -- exact lines would be announced at a speech by an official who doesn't deal with this issue," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Nevertheless, Makovsky stressed the significance of Wolfowitz's comments.
Ziad Abu Amr, a leading Palestinian legislator from Gaza, expressed skepticism that the plan would take hold among the parties.
"This plan is very controversial, and with only 60,000 Palestinians and 100,000 Israelis, it is not a breakthrough," he said.
Whatever its popular support, the plan might be less important than the frustration Wolfowitz repeatedly expressed. In a question-and-answer session after the talk, he chided a student who criticized Israel for violating "tons" of human rights -- because she didn't go far enough.
"You cited some things that Israelis have to change, and you could make a longer list," Wolfowitz said. "You could have talked about settlements, for example. The president has talked about settlements, he's talked about the wall. He's talked about the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. There's no question that the president is prepared to put pressure on the Israelis to change."
An Israeli official expressed amazement that Wolfowitz used the term "wall," the Palestinian description of Israel's security barrier, which some have said conjures up the image of a ghetto. The overwhelming majority of the barrier is electronic fencing, with only several short portions -- where a major highway passes next to Palestinian cities -- consisting of an actual wall.
Bush and his aides clearly place most of the blame for the continuing violence on Arafat. However, U.S. officials say they also see moderate Palestinian leaders ready to succeed Arafat and worry that Sharon will prejudice a workable outcome by carving the West Bank into cantons through settlement building and the security barrier.
The signals are not coming only from Wolfowitz. Administration officials closely monitored the brouhaha that erupted last week between Sharon's government and army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, who complained that restrictive measures were increasing Palestinian violence, rather than reducing it.
"We believe that it is exceedingly important that the Israelis improve the lives of the Palestinian people," Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told a group of foreign journalists Oct. 30, the same day as Wolfowitz's speech.
Rice and others also were furious at Sharon's suggestion last week that a second security barrier could run through the Jordan Valley, cutting Palestinians off from Jordan and surrounding them with Israelis.
Much of the impetus for the tough talk stems from administration efforts to earn credibility -- especially in the Arab world -- for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
Israelis and Arabs are closely watching what happens next. The United States has some leverage with $3 billion in loan guarantees due to Israel next year; it has pledged to deduct the cost of new building in West Bank settlements and could also deduct the $1 billion-plus cost of the fence.
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