Powell draws criticism from Israel

Senior official says plan to meet Geneva Accord negotiators is a `mistake'


JERUSALEM - In a rare Israeli criticism of the United States, a senior official said yesterday that it would be a mistake for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to meet Israeli and Palestinian politicians who negotiated a symbolic Mideast peace plan.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has been fiercely critical of what has been termed the Geneva Accord, calling it subversive, free-lance diplomacy. The self-appointed Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held a signing ceremony Monday in the Swiss city, saying the document could serve as a blueprint for formal talks between the two governments.

The Bush administration says it remains committed to the official Middle East peace plan, known as the road map, which was introduced in June but quickly stalled.

Letter from Powell

Powell sent a letter last month encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians involved in the Geneva Accord, and is expected to meet them within a week, according to officials and diplomats.

"I think he is making a mistake," Ehud Olmert, Israel's deputy prime minister, said of Powell in an interview on Israel radio. "I think he is not helping the process. I think this is a wrong step by a representative of the American administration."

Powell, speaking in Tunis yesterday, rejected the Israeli criticism. "I do not know why I or anyone else in the U.S. government should deny ourselves the opportunity to hear from others who are committed to peace and who have ideas," he said. He added that his interest in the plan "in no way undercuts our strong support for the state of Israel."

Sharon places great value on his close ties with President Bush, whose administration has been largely supportive of Sharon, while boycotting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Prodding from U.S.

The American overtures to the unofficial peace negotiators are seen as a way of prodding the Israeli and Palestinian governments toward the negotiating table. But Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said the Geneva proposal ignores key elements of the current peace plan.

He called it "an end run around the opening phase of the road map, which calls first for a termination of violence."

Sharon has always insisted that the bloodshed must stop before peace negotiations can resume.

But many Palestinians claim that Sharon is not serious about negotiations, and that he has stepped up Israeli military operations when political progress has appeared to be within reach.

Meanwhile, Palestinians took to the streets in the Gaza Strip on Monday to condemn the Geneva plan.

Gaza City protest

In a Gaza City protest, about 1,000 Palestinians from various factions rallied against the proposal and denounced Yasser Abed Rabbo, the former Palestinian information minister who led the Palestinian delegation to Switzerland.

"Abed Rabbo, you coward, you are a collaborator with the Americans," the crowd chanted.

Many Palestinians are angry that the document effectively drops the longstanding Palestinian demand that refugees from the 1948 Middle East war be allowed to return to their old land, which is now part of Israel.

The refugees and their descendants now number around 4 million, but the Geneva document would give Israel the right to block any large-scale return.

"What can I tell my grandchildren?" said Hikmat Adwan, 60, a Gaza resident who said his family was driven from its village in 1948. "That I gave up my rights. That I gave up my land."

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