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Senior Palestinian officials flip-flopped yesterday before agreeing at the last minute to attend today's launch of the Geneva Accord, an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

The Palestinian negotiators, who had been threatened by militants, initially said that they would only attend if they received a written letter from PA Chairman Yasser Arafat stating that he and the Fatah Central Committee support the initiative. But although Arafat refused to grant the letter, they agreed to make do with a verbal statement that they were attending the ceremony with his permission, in their capacity as private citizens.

But Arafat stressed that neither he nor the PLO have officially accepted the draft peace accord, which was negotiated by Israeli opposition figures and senior Palestinian officials with his consent. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia also declared that the Palestinian participants represent neither the PLO nor the Palestinian government.

A source close to Arafat explained that the PA chairman is opposed in principle to consenting to the draft agreement in writing. "Arafat did not give written consent to [former U.S. president Bill] Clinton regarding a permanent-status agreement, and there is no reason to give it now to [Yossi] Beilin," the chief Israeli architect of the accord, the source said.

Meanwhile, a survey commissioned by Haaretz has revealed that within Israel, opponents of the draft agreement only narrowly outnumber supporters. The poll found that 31 percent of Israelis support the agreement, 38 percent oppose it and 20 percent have not yet formed an opinion. Even 13 percent of Likud voters supported the accord, which was negotiated without the Likud-led government's consent and is fiercely opposed by it.

The last-minute doubts about Palestinian participation fueled some doubts about the Palestinians' willingness for peace. "Any Palestinian distancing from the agreement cancels its very basis, because what it is selling is a Palestinian partner," noted Channel 2 diplomatic reporter Rina Mazliah. "What almost happened today strengthens the Israeli opponents of the accord."

Beilin, however, remained calm. "What is very clear is that they are having their own debate," he said. "It is just a demonstration of the difficulties that both sides are facing."

The crisis began when two Palestinian cabinet ministers and two legislators who helped negotiate the plan announced they were withdrawing from the ceremony. Palestinian participants had been under intense pressure by militants, who were angry over the accord's concession on refugees.

In a leaflet, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades called them "collaborators," a loaded term that often marks Palestinians for death. Masked gunmen also reportedly shot at the home of former cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, the key Palestinian architect of the agreement. Yesterday, Fatah and Hamas activists attacked delegates trying to leave Gaza for the ceremony, calling them "traitorous" and blocking their cars for about 45 minutes.

Minister Hisham Abd al-Raziq and legislator Khatem Abdel Khader, as well as fellow Fatah member Qadoura Fares, decided to go, while a fourth would-be participant said that he would stay behind to market the agreement. Arafat's national security adviser, Jibril Rajoub, is also going. But most of the several hundred lower-level Palestinians who had planned to attend changed their minds yesterday after the Fatah Central Committee publicly urged them to boycott it.

Both supporters and opponents of the draft said they believe Arafat, who has been publicly vague about his support, in fact believes that the authors are "trading in national assets and are collaborators with the American Zionist project." But Arafat was still interested in having Palestinian delegates attend the ceremony, they said, in order to embarrass Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The ceremony will be attended by some 200 Israelis, a few dozen Palestinians and numerous foreign dignitaries, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, former Polish president Lech Walesa, the foreign minister of Qatar and envoys from Oman, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt.

The main points of the Geneva Accord

The Geneva Accord is a model permanent-status agreement between Israel and a Palestinian state. Following are its main points:

l The agreement constitutes an end to all claims on both sides. The border it sets is final, unappealable and replaces all UN resolutions and previous agreements.

l The Palestinians recognize the Jewish people's right to a state, and each side recognizes Israel and Palestine as the other's national homeland. The Palestinian state will inherit all of the PLO's rights and responsibilities.

l Jerusalem: All Jewish neighborhoods, including those in East Jerusalem, will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and the Palestinians will recognize Jerusalem, in its new borders, as Israel's capital. Palestinian neighborhoods will be under Palestinian sovereignty and will become the Palestinian state's capital. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem will lose their Israeli residency rights and become Palestinian citizens.

l The Temple Mount will be under Palestinian sovereignty, but an international force will maintain order and ensure freedom of access for all faiths. Jewish prayer on the mount will be forbidden, as will archaeological digs.

l The Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter, including Zion Gate and Dung Gate, will remain under Israeli sovereignty.

l Refugees: The words "return" or "right of return" do not appear in the document. Israel will accept a limited number of Palestinian refugees, with this number at its own discretion (experts estimate around 40,000 refugees over a period of several years). The other refugees may resettle in Palestine or third countries. Israel will pay an agreed sum in compensation to the refugees.

l Borders: Israel will withdraw to the 1967 borders within 30 months, except for agreed territorial exchanges in a 1:1 ratio. The Israel Defense Forces will maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley for an additional three years.

l Territorial exchanges: Israel will annex a strip of the West Bank near Ben-Gurion Airport and major settlement blocs near the Green Line, including the West Bank settlements around Jerusalem: Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, Gush Etzion and Givon. In exchange, Israel will give the Palestinians equivalent territory in the Negev, adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Efrat, Har Homa and Ariel will become Palestinian.

(Mazal Mualem)