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Op-Ed: Middle East Accord Offers 'Best' Chance for Peace

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed was published in the Nov. 3, 2003, issue of USA Today.

Although it has received little attention in the U.S. media, a detailed, soon-to-be-released Middle East accord struck by a group of influential Israelis and Palestinians paves the way to the region's best, and perhaps last, chance for peace.

Its plan is an alternative to the "Quartet" road map fashioned by the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. That also offered an encouraging prospect for peace, but even its first basic phase has been substantially rejected. Key obstacles have been Israel's insistence on colonizing Gaza and the far reaches of the West Bank, and the Palestinians' insistence on the withdrawal of all Israeli settlements, a return to the pre-1967 border and a right to unlimited return for refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars.

The Quartet's plan is now a dead issue. Instead, there are continuing violent attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups and increasingly harsh reprisals from Israel. With apparent acquiescence from the Bush administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently announced that additional settlement units will be built and the Israeli dividing wall farther intruded into Palestinian land.

Supporting such policies is the worst thing America could do for Israelis who want peace. There also is no doubt that the obvious lack of real effort to resolve the Palestinian issue is a primary source of anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East and a major incentive for terrorist activity.

Determined negotiators

For more than two years, the group of Israelis and Palestinians, many of whom played key roles at earlier discussions under President Clinton at Camp David and later at Taba, Egypt, has held difficult, tedious negotiations. Working without government support, both sides have made constructive concessions without contradicting the concepts of the Oslo accords of 1993, the Clinton proposals and the Quartet road map.

Their work is not a substitute for official government action. It does, however, present a clear picture of a final, comprehensive peace agreement that could bring the terrible Middle East conflict to a peaceful conclusion. The final result of this heroic effort soon will be revealed in Geneva.

Their plan proposes a two-state solution. It would settle the conflict's most critical elements, including precise border delineations, Israeli settlements, the end of excessive occupation of Palestinian lands, the future of Jerusalem and its holy places and the extremely troubling question of Palestinian refugees.

The proposed plan permits more than half of Israeli settlers to remain permanently in the West Bank, strictly limits the return of Palestinian refugees and provides for a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, connected to Gaza by a secure highway. Highly developed Palestinian land near Jerusalem now occupied by Israeli settlers would be swapped for equal areas of remote, uninhabited Israeli land. Satellite imagery has defined a border to the level of individual homes. Unrestricted access by specific routes is guaranteed to East Jerusalem's holy places.

Not yet resolved, but ...

There inevitably will be modifications to this breakthrough proposal. With full backing from Washington, follow-up negotiations could finally reach the goal of a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Presumably - and as already pledged by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - such an agreement would induce all Arab nations to recognize Israel's rights to live in peace and to take action to prevent further violence initiated by naysaying Palestinian groups. Such a commitment should be a prerequisite to a final agreement.

Current U.S.-Israeli strategies must change. Demanding an end to all terrorism before final negotiations only guarantees they never happen. Such extremist groups as Hamas do not want a negotiated settlement and are out of the Palestinian Authority's control. Half-hearted, step-by-step approaches let violent acts on either side subvert the peace process.

Real moves toward peace demand bold actions by leaders. This initiative can provide indispensable guidance. It is unlikely that we will ever see a more promising foundation for peace.

Former President Jimmy Carter chairs the non-governmental Carter Center in Atlanta, which advances peace and health worldwide.

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