A Tiny Seed To Make Mideast Peace Bloom?

It's tempting to dismiss the unofficial peace initiative formally unveiled by a group of former Israeli and Palestinian politicians in Switzerland on Dec. 1 as a public-relations ploy -- and little more. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has condemned the proposal, known as the Geneva Accord, to create a Palestinian state along Israel's 1967 borders. Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat provided only a muted endorsement because the Palestinians would have to give up such cherished goals as the "right of return" to their former homes. After three years of violence, few Israelis and Palestinians dare to hope for a way out of the impasse.

Renewed Efforts

No one thinks the Geneva Accord, negotiated by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, will be adopted. But the accord and other nongovernmental efforts may just be enough to force Sharon and the Palestinians to reengage. The accord follows a peace plan called People's Voice, written by Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli security services director, and Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Palestinian intellectual. It has been signed by 125,000 Israelis and 65,000 Palestinians. And four former Israeli security chiefs recently caused a stir by warning publicly of a "catastrophe" if talks don't resume. "It's the beginning of a [new] peace movement in Israel. It's been dead for a long time," says Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Just as important, leading Israeli business executives are backing the peace efforts. Among the 300 delegates to the Geneva ceremony were Dov Lautman, chairman of Delta Galil Industries Ltd., Israel's largest textile company, and Bruno Landsberg, chairman of Sano Bruno's Enterprises Ltd., a major household cleaning products maker. Organizers have spent $1 million to publish the accord in Israeli and Palestinian newspapers and send it to every Israeli home, and plan to spend much more on marketing. "The debate will only get more heated," says Dror Sternschuss, the Geneva group's marketing director. Meanwhile, entrepreneur Orni Petruschka, former co-chairman of tech startup Chromatis Networks Inc., has become general manager and a financial backer of People's Voice since selling Chromatis for $3.8 billion. "The conflict has stopped all economic and social progress. Without a solution, we'll continue to stagnate," he says.

Sharon faces criticism from other fronts. Shinui, the No. 2 party in his coalition, wants the government to dismantle not only illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank but larger, government-sanctioned settlements. The trouble is ultranationalist parties threaten to quit the coalition if Sharon makes concessions to the Palestinians. Even so, expectations are growing that he will have to take unilateral action to get peace talks going again soon. One possibility: compromise on the planned route of Israel's security fence, which will dip into the West Bank. If such a move brings the two sides back to the table, the peace campaigners will have scored far more than a public-relations coup.

By Neal Sandler in Jerusalem

Edited by Rose Brady

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.