The Palestinian leadership is demanding a clear timetable and framework for a US-backed Middle East peace conference being proposed for this summer, to prevent it from descending into an empty "festival" of ideas.
A Palestinian minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, warned yesterday that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was trying to undermine the conference by seeking to downgrade it to a talking shop, at which ideas would be exchanged, rather than a meeting that would hammer out a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
The White House is drawing up plans for the international conference.
Mr Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister for information and culture and part of Yasser Arafat's inner circle, was speaking at a debate in London organized by the Guardian. In a rare Palestinian-Israeli venture, he shared a platform with Yossi Beilin, the former Israeli justice minister and one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo peace plan.
The two are key members of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Coalition, an ambitious attempt to maintain a bridge between the two communities. They are unable to meet in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza because of Israeli government restrictions.
The London meeting is the first between the two for three months because of the Israeli offensive into the West Bank that was accompanied by the worst violence since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Mr Abed Rabbo disclosed that he and Mr Beilin are working together on a new peace plan. He expressed confidence that it would win the backing of Mr Arafat and other Palestinians. But Mr Beilin was more cautious. "We do not have a plan yet. We have the guidelines," he said. "We do not have anything detailed yet."
Speaking to more than 400 people crammed into Church House near Westminster, Mr Abed Rabbo expressed sorrow that the two men had been unable to meet for three months: "This shows the situation is not moving towards a possible breakthrough. On the contrary, we feel that there is a growing crisis."
He was skeptical about the sincerity of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, when he promised a Palestinian state. He said it was clear to everyone that what Mr Sharon wanted was to divide the West Bank and Gaza, the basis of a future Palestinian state, into bits: the West Bank into eight pieces and Gaza into four.
Mr Abed Rabbo said some of those out to destroy the Middle East peace conference wanted it to drag on for two years or more. Those people wanted it to be a "festival where we can exchange ideas, without clear terms of reference and without a clear timetable". That would be unacceptable to the Palestinians and to the Arab world.
But he saw a glimmer of hope in what he saw as a change in the US administration's attitude. He said that in recent discussions with US officials Washington had come to accept that there could be no agreement on security, which is the Israeli priority, unless there was also a political settlement, the Palestinian position.
The Israelis and Palestinians came close, reaching a settlement at Taba in Egypt in January last year, following talks at Camp David in the US in July 2000.
Moment of truth
Both Mr Abed Rabbo and Mr Beilin described it as a "moment of truth" from which both sides had retreated. Mr Abed Rabbo, in his one criticism of Mr Arafat, said: "There was a lack of courage on the part of the leadership on both sides not to tell people we have achieved some steps."
Mr Beilin, marginally more optimistic than Mr Abed Rabbo, said: "I believe we are now at an interesting, important and dangerous juncture." He said it could go either way, towards a settlement or deteriorate, becoming crazier and crazier.
He agreed that both sides had failed to prepare their respective constituencies for a deal after Camp David but at least when the two sides face their next "moment of truth" people would now be aware of what the likely compromises will be.
He said the guidelines for a settlement were already in place: on the future of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza.
Mr Beilin has been marginalized since Labour lost the general election last year. But he insisted that opinion within Israel was shifting, with the public becoming sick of violence and wanting a solution.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002