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Middle East Ends and Means

For a few brief moments last week, a private document called the Geneva Accord filled a political vacuum for Israelis and Palestinians who hope for a secure homeland.

This unofficial peace plan was unveiled in Switzerland - which sponsored the negotiations behind it - and was briefly admired by many world leaders. President Bush described the model agreement, reached by two former Israeli and Palestinian officials, as "productive." Colin Powell gave it a hearing at the State Department. And seven former US national security advisers, defense secretaries, and an ex-secretary of State said it addresses "at the outset, not at the end of an incremental process, all the basic principles of a fair and lasting solution."

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Indeed, the Geneva Accord contains the balanced trade-offs needed to create an independent Palestine and a secure Israel. It applies lessons from past official failures, from the Oslo accords (1993) to the Clinton-era talks at Taba (2000).

But the attention the world gave the accord wasn't due so much to its meticulous details. Rather, it was because Mr. Bush's road map for peace remains stalled just six months after a grand unveiling.

The president's attention to his own goal of creating a Palestinian state by 2005 seems to have lapsed. His plan faces opposition from Israel's nationalist government and its political lobbies in the US.

But the road map, unlike the Geneva Accord, also fails to spell out the final compromises needed for a two-state solution. The accord fills a need to educate Israelis and Palestinians on the benefits they would receive and what they must give up. It spells out a specific endgame for a peaceful separation of two peoples, rather than just a process of brotherly reconciliation with no clear picture of the needed trade-offs.

Three years of violence have left both Israelis and Palestinians wary of "process" plans. And many on both sides believe there's no partner to negotiate with.

The Geneva Accord sends a hopeful signal that not only is a deal possible but that some leaders are eager to negotiate it. In this case, the self-appointed negotiators were former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Is it the perfect plan? No. It may not go far enough to ensure Israel's security. And while it notably drops the long-held demand by Palestinian refugees that they be able to return to their homes in Israel, that compromise isn't made explicit.

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Despite such flaws, the plan could bring hope to Israelis who are coming to the conclusion - by simple demographic projection - that the Jewish state will soon have a majority Palestinian population if it doesn't split off the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians, too, would welcome the plan's hope of relief from the hardship caused by the Israeli clampdown - aimed at killing or capturing militants who've led three years of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Bush's faint praise of the Geneva Accord doesn't bode well for its acceptance. His road map, torn and set aside as it is, is likely to remain operable simply because it creates the appearance that the president is doing something, even minimally, and it more or less keeps both sides talking.

But the president could more quickly bring about a solution by endorsing the kind of specific compromises the Geneva Accord outlines.

For any Middle East vision, peace is in the final details, not just in how to get there.