An alternative path to peace as the Middle East teeters on the edge of an abyss

14 October 2003

One of the unwritten laws of international politics states that, just as the last vestiges of hope seem to have drained from an already hopeless situation, a small chink opens in some hitherto unsuspected corner to prove that all is not yet lost. The so-called "alternative peace plan" for the Middle East, initialled in Jordan at the weekend, offers one such slim ray of light.

It was only 10 days ago, with the suicide bombing in Haifa and its aftermath, that the latest chequered effort at a peace plan - the internationally-backed, but much-troubled, road-map - appeared finally to have run its course. Subsequent reports from the United States suggested that President Bush had given up on a plan for which his support had at best been lukewarm. An Israeli air strike on Syria elicited only half-hearted condemnation from Washington. The message from the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was uncompromising: the Palestinians had failed to honour their security commitments; from now on, no quarter would be given.

Just as the prophets of doom were foretelling a new war that would engulf the whole region, however, the outline of the new, "alternative", peace plan started to become known. It transpired that a group of politicians, academics and others from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide had been working on a draft agreement that could replace the road-map.

By no means all the details of the plan are yet public; they will be disclosed only when the initiative is formally presented in Geneva next month. Of what is known, however, two elements encourage at least some optimism - a commodity that has become all too rare in discussion of the Middle East. The first is that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, was apparently aware of the secret talks, arranged by Swiss diplomats, and gave them his blessing. The second is that, unlike recent aborted peace plans, this one starts with the practical and territorial solution - a variation on the familiar land-for-peace barter - in the belief that security will follow. The road-map, like the Oslo peace plan, envisaged gradual concessions by both sides, starting with security.

It would be wrong to draw parallels between the new document, to be known as the Geneva Accord, with the Oslo peace plan - and to their credit, neither the participants nor their supporters are trying to do this. Those on the Israeli side have neither political power nor any democratic mandate. How far they lack official support was clear from the fierce denunciations of the plan from Mr Sharon yesterday. The extent of Mr Arafat's support for the draft - as opposed to the fact of Palestinian involvement in the talks - is also questionable.

According to advance reports, a key element is Palestinian agreement to forego a demand that has hitherto been central to their position: the right of refugees to return to their homeland. The Israeli negotiators for their part are reportedly ready to cede sovereignty over Temple Mount, one of the most disputed religious sites in Jerusalem. With a few carefully negotiated exceptions, Israel would also agree to withdraw to its 1967 borders.

In essence, there is little that is "alternative" about this alternative peace plan. The bargaining counters are the same as they have been since before the Oslo accords, as is the shape of the proposed final settlement. The most intractable issues are the same as they were in every set of talks and every near-agreement, including Camp David and Taba. What is new is the precedence given to the final settlement and the fact that the initiative comes not from officials, but from influential representatives of civil society.

Mr Sharon has claimed there is no one on the Palestinian side to negotiate with; the Palestinians could well say the same about Israel. And there may as yet be no government, on either side, ready to negotiate. One day, however, that could change - and sooner, perhaps, than we think.