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Unofficial accord seeks Middle East peace

Alexis Keller helped bring the accord about. SF DRS

Prominent members of Israeli and Palestinian civil society have gathered in Geneva on Monday to unveil an unofficial Middle East peace plan.

Dubbed the “Geneva Accord”, the initiative is the brainchild of Swiss academic, Alexis Keller.

Six weeks after wrapping up secret negotiations in Jordan, the signatories to the Geneva Accord will officially publish the document at a ceremony in the lakeside city.

The launch of the peace plan marks a return to the initiative’s source, because it was in Geneva that the idea was born.

In summer 2001, Keller suggested to his friend Yossi Beilin, the former Israeli justice minister, that something could be done to reignite stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Beilin approached his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed Rabbo – both men had taken part in the 1993 Oslo peace accord negotiations.

Secret talks with other interested parties in the Middle East conflict led to the publication of an unofficial, 60-page peace plan.

swissinfo caught up with Keller on the eve of the launch of the accord.

swissinfo: How has this initiative been received?

Alexis Keller: The international community has broadly welcomed the accord, but the United States has been more guarded in its response to the initiative than Europe. I’ve been surprised by the strength of the Israeli government’s hostility towards the accord.

Public opinion is still divided, which is not surprising at all, because the text was only published a few weeks ago. But the idea is making headway. The Israelis are starting to realise that it is possible to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

In the occupied territories, the reaction has been generally good. Of course, there is opposition, notably from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But on both sides, more and more people are realising that the [official peace process] is going nowhere and that this conflict cannot be solved militarily.

swissinfo: How have Arab countries reacted?

A.K.: Egypt and Jordan have publicly welcomed the accord, calling it an important contribution to peace in the region.

To the best of my knowledge, although Saudi Arabia has been more reserved, it has shown signs of interest in terms of encouraging telephone calls at the highest levels. There has as yet been no official reaction from Syria, which of course has a very strained relationship with Israel.

swissinfo: What in your view are the document’s weaknesses?

A.K.: The text does not address the important issue of water. Nevertheless, for the first time in 50 years we have an [unofficial] accord on the table that is all-encompassing and which looks at all of the problems in detail. I am convinced that this document will – at the very least – serve as a starting point for future accords.

swissinfo: Could the negotiation process – which has been led by civil society members and which is now the subject of a large public consultation exercise – serve as a model for other conflicts?

A.K.: I am convinced that it will and I have no doubt that these types of initiative have a great future. The way this process has worked underlines the growing importance of civil society in international relations and in resolving conflicts.

swissinfo: The president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, Alfred Donath, has criticised the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, for not keeping the Israeli government informed about this initiative. Is this criticism justified?

A.K.: First of all, it’s important to note that Donath supports hardliners in Israel. The Jewish community in Switzerland is actually divided on the subject of the Geneva Accord.

As far as Calmy-Rey is concerned, she never set out to conspire against the Israeli government. We asked her for logistical support, which she gave us.

If this kind of support really poses a problem, I think it means we have to reassess the policy of peace promotion adopted by Switzerland and its foreign minister – a policy, I might add, that has been approved by the Swiss parliament.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand in Geneva (translation: Faryal Mirza)

Geneva-based academic Alexis Keller helped initiate the Geneva Accord, an unofficial peace plan for the Middle East.

The aim was to continue with peace negotiations held by Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in January 2001.

Keller and his father, a former banker and diplomat, funded the Geneva negotiations and hosted meetings at the family chalet in the Bernese Oberland.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR