The meeting in Oxford, which ended on Friday, aimed to discuss ways of implementing the road map took place against a backdrop of feverish diplomatic activity spanning three continents.
It became clear early in the day there was a new game in town when the US Secretary of State Colin Powell defied Israel’s President Moshe Katzav to request a meeting with Yossi Beilin and Yasir Abd Rabo, the architects of the the unofficial peace plan due to be signed in Geneva on Monday.
“The Geneva initiative was a turning point, and since the world learned of it, nothing has been the same,” the former Israeli Labour Party leader Amram Mitzna told Aljazeera.net on Friday.
“Today’s meeting was an attempt to show that the Israeli government is also talking. But I don’t think they will be able to achieve anything new. Without the participation of Omri Sharon - the Likud MK and prime minister’s son - the media would not even be giving it headlines.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the meeting was actually a cover for high level talks between Omri Sharon and Jibril al-Rajub, Yasir Arafat’s security chief.
Yasir Abd Rabo (L) & Yossi Beilin
drafted the Geneva initiative
But Palestinian representative Ziyad Abu Ziyad denied there had been any "bilateral" contacts between the two men.
“Everybody took part in the discussions, which focussed on the road map and the necessity to implement it as it is, not as Israel thinks it to be,” he told Aljazeera.net.
“We pointed out that Israel is obliged to stop collective punishments, withdraw from populated areas and allow us to run elections,” he added.
But he was very sensitive to questions about unofficial discussions in the Oxford corridors. “Just because people stand around and drink doesn’t mean there were behind the scenes contacts,” he said.
However, Gideon Meir, the official spokesman for the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, while denying that the meeting had any official importance, admitted that some negotiations had occurred.
“The most important talks between ourselves and the Palestinians took place outside the seminars, in the corridors,” he said.
“A lot of views were exchanged, and we were disappointed to hear that they now believe the cessation of violence is something that should be up for negotiation. This is not the case. The road map calls for an immediate and unconditional end to it.”
He said that unless the Palestinian side moved away from “rhetoric” and made concessions there would be no progress.
Some Israeli academics now see similarities between this period and the era in which the Oslo accords were launched.
Oslo, they say began as a parallel diplomatic track with a similarly rightwing Likud government in power that was also the stalling peace talks taking place in Madrid.
In fact, Yossi Beilin, who master-minded the current Geneva initiative, was also one of those most involved in Oslo’s development.
Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University, is one of those who believes that diplomacy in both cases has obscured the work of Israeli bulldozers.
“Geneva has overshadowed today’s meeting but in a way, it’s also propelled Sharon to come up with something that’s - at least ostensibly - an alternative to it,” he said.
"The Geneva initiative was a turning point, and since the world learned of it, nothing has been the same"
Ex-Israeli Labour Party leader
“It is a done deal, while Sharon is not talking about a final status agreement in any way, shape or form. But while it has overshadowed Sharon, it has also overshadowed what’s going on on the ground; the building of the Separation Wall.”
The most positive thing about the Geneva initiative, Gordon argues, is that it has changed the public debate. “Colin Powell is going to the launch next week,” he said, “Jimmy Carter,the ex-US president, is going and Bill Clinton is considering going too. It is doing positive and important things. Whether it will die out, I don’t know.”
It may have determined the mood music for the Oxford meeting but for protagonists on both sides the Geneva initiative was something that had to be glossed over.
“There were no talks in the corridors,” Jibril al-Rajoub said. “The road map is one thing and Geneva is something else. I don’t want to say anything about this.” Then he hung up.
Gideon Meir was more effusive. “Geneva is totally unimportant because it does not prove that there is a Palestinian partner for peace,” he claimed.
“The Palestinians and Israelis who negotiated it were not elected or accountable to anyone. Therefore it is a nice academic exercise that will be written about in the history books, but nothing more than that.”
This is certainly the line the Israeli government will be pushing hard next week but with apparent endorsements from the British Foreign Office and US State Department, the Geneva initiative can no longer be ignored.
The Geneva initiative has forced
Sharon to make his own moves
Millions of Palestinians may be disappointed – even offended – that it appears to backtrack on long-standing demands for a right to return for refugees. But it also seems to offer a beacon for an end to the bloodshed that could be acceptable to war-weary constituencies on both sides.
Amram Mitzna stressed he saw the initiative as a conclusion to the road map, not an alternative to it, but implicit in his celebration was a warning.
“We proved in the Geneva talks that if you are ready to put the most sensitive issues like Jerusalem, borders and refugees on the table with honesty and bravery, then you will find a partner for peace,” he said.
For the government of Gideon Meir to do that without splintering its own narrow coalition would be a breakthrough similar to the signing of the Geneva initiative itself.