[The question remains whether Israel’s supporters in the US Congress will object to a formal Powell embrace of the accord initiators after the Geneva Conference takes place -db]

The Geneva Accord peace plan got a significant boost Friday, with a letter of support from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, organizers said.

Washington’s backing of the Geneva Accord could be seen as a veiled rebuke to the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who has attacked the plan as subversive.

Powell’s letter was addressed to the leaders of the initiative, former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, the two told a news conference.

“Dear Yossi and Yasser,” the letter read, according to a Beilin aide. “The president remains committed a two state solution… but we also believe that projects such as yours are important for sustaining hope and understanding.”

The Geneva plan proposes a Palestinian state on nearly all the land Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. It would also give Palestinians control of a disputed Jerusalem holy shrine, known to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

In return, Palestinians would give up their demand for the “right of return” of about four million Palestinian war refugees and their descendants to Israel.

Paul Patin, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said the United States remains committed to the road map peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005, but does not draw borders. Israelis and Palestinians are deadlocked over implementation of that plan.

Patin said Powell’s letter was meant to show support for the Geneva Accord, but was not an official endorsement.

An Israeli official dismissed the Powell letter as unlikely to have an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“They can compliment and praise all they want, but from compliments no real progress has been made,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The plan is being sponsored by Switzerland and is to be officially launched in Geneva, although a date has yet to be decided. Abed Rabbo said it should be a matter of weeks.

On Wednesday, the plan got the blessing of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan who called it a “courageous” attempt to break the stalemate on both sides.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz – the Pentagon’s No. 2 official – last week praised another unofficial peace plan drawn up by a prominent Palestinian moderate and the former head of Israel’s secret service.

Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh say they have collected 100,000 Israeli and 60,000 Palestinian signatures in three months.

Their petition calls for Israel to withdraw to the borders it had before the 1967 war, when it captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The document calls for a demilitarized Palestinian state in those territories.

In a lecture at Georgetown University, Wolfowitz said the petition’s principles “look very much like” the Bush administration’s road map to a peaceful, two-state solution.

In Friday’s news conference, authors of the Geneva plan said they were not trying to usurp the authority of their respective governments but to mobilize public opinion as a tool for change.

“We are not taking away the role of anybody,” Abed Rabbo said. “We are sending a message to the governments of both sides and to the governments of the world to start official negotiations because there is no alternative to official negotiations.”

This piece ran in HaAretz on November 7th, 2003