Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, the driving force behind the so-called Geneva Initiative on the Israeli side, tried to hand over a copy at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's residence.

But officials said they could not accept the text, as the proper procedures for delivering documents to the premier had not been followed.

Sharon has poured scorn on the agreement drawn up by opposition politicians and leading Palestinian figures, calling it an illusion and insisting the internationally backed "road map" for peace is the only way to secure calm in the region.

But Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat has been more welcoming. He has said that, although the initiative does not have official backing, he welcomes any such effort to bring an end to the conflict.

Potential

But Beilin said that the Geneva plan, which is due to be formally unveiled in Switzerland on 1 December, had the potential of succeeding where other efforts had failed.

Israeli President Moshe Katzav
(C) meets the initiative's backers

"The Geneva agreement is different to other agreements because this is done for the first time by people from both sides and not between the governments," he said.
 
He added that he was "optimistic" after what he called the "positive reaction in Israeli society and the positive reaction of the international community".

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said the initiative "deserves praise and encouragement as courageous attempts to break the stalemate on both sides", while British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it gave both sides "a chance to look beyond current difficulties".

Last opportunity

His symbolic visit to Sharon's residence came as copies of the document were landing through post boxes in Israel. Arabic and even Russian versions of the document will also be made available in the coming weeks.

Palestinian newspapers published the document in special 16-page supplements on Sunday while Yasir Abd Rabu - the former information minister who has been the main driving force on the Palestinian side - warned that it could be the final chance of reaching a peaceful settlement between the two sides.

"I am afraid that this will be the last opportunity for a solution between the two parties," he told al-Quds newspaper.

If "the Geneva opportunity is wasted" then the Israeli government would merely try "to decide our destiny" by pushing ahead with settlements and its controversial West Bank separation barrier, he added.