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Arab nations weigh backing Geneva plan for Mideast peace

CAIRO -- Arab countries are considering backing an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace accord reached last year in Geneva, according to a document obtained by the Associated Press yesterday.

When the Geneva accord was made public, Egypt and Jordan -- the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel -- welcomed it as an effort to revive stalled peace talks and end more than three years of bloodshed.

But many Arab nations sharply denounced it -- including Syria, which said it made too many concessions. Others criticized the accord's position on refugees.

The four-page Arab League document does not spell out how to resolve the stickiest issues, but, in essence, it backs the "Geneva Accord" reached last year by unofficial Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meeting in Switzerland.

The document never mentions the Geneva Accord by name, referring instead to "unofficial initiatives." But a senior Arab diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed this was a reference to the Geneva Accord -- and the contents themselves leave little room for doubt.

Arab leaders are to take up the matter at a summit in Tunis on March 29-30.

The Geneva Accord outlines the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, deals with Israeli settlements, and turns Jerusalem into a shared capital for both states.

It offers compensation to Palestinian refugees, but allows Israel to decide how many return -- a point the Arab nations opposed.

The Arab League document reaffirms Israel's "legal, political, and moral responsibilities for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem," but it does not insist the refugees return to their homeland.

According to the United Nations, 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in 1948; today, they total about 5 million with their descendants.

Titled "The Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict," the Arab League document also calls for integrating ideas from the Arab accord adopted in Beirut in 2002, the US-backed "road map," and "President George Bush's vision." It did not elaborate.

The road map, which calls for an independent Palestinian state by next year, has been stalled since June.

A former Palestinian information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, who negotiated the Geneva Accord with former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin, has visited Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, trying to persuade the governments to back the accord with an Arab summit resolution.

Arab League foreign ministers met yesterday in Cairo to prepare for the summit, where the leaders are also expected to seek ways to invigorate their 22-member organization and consider a unified effort to reform Arab society.

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