It is hard to believe that just six months ago in Jordan, Ariel Sharon was warmly shaking the hand of Mahmoud Abbas, then the Palestinian prime minister, in what was hailed as the first step towards the creation of a Palestinian state. The optimism of summer seems a distant memory. The latest suicide bombings in Haifa appeared to mark the death of President Bush's road map to peace. Israel's air strike on Syria was the requiem.
Abbas is gone, Yasser Arafat is in poor health and exiled in Ramallah, Sharon ponders over assassination attempts against him and the demands to withdraw the illegal Israeli settlements. Once again, the extremists dictate events in the Middle East. Since the collapse of the hudna (ceasefire), recriminations have been running high. But now, an unlikely diplomatic alliance has formed: the former PLO representative and intellectual Dr Sari Nusseibeh, and Major General Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, Israel's secret police, are trying to break the deadlock.
Their road map, known as the "People's Voice", proposes a two-state solution in return for Jewish settlers withdrawing from the West Bank and a Palestinian renouncement of the "right of return" to Israel. The populist strategy intends to bypass the ageing political establishments. So far, more than 80,000 Palestinians and 130,000 Israelis have signed up. If the trend continues, Nusseibeh and Ayalon will have majorities within five years. And now the United Nations and the United States are backing the initiative. Paul Wolfowitz, US deputy defence secretary, has said: "It represents a significant grass-roots movement." Nusseibeh and Ayalon are motivated by desperation. They believe that Israel is heading for "a catastrophe" unless a peace deal is negotiated soon.
"We are heading towards a situation in which Israel will not be a democracy and home to the Jewish people," says Ayalon, pointing out that Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan a decade from now. "This may be the last opportunity to reach agreement," Nusseibeh says. "Soon territorial solutions like a Palestinian state will no longer be on the agenda. The only alternative is then demographic, based on the struggle to attain equal rights between Arabs and Jews within a single state."
Nusseibeh is a moderate trying to break through entrenched political and religious obstacles to peace. He has denounced those demanding the elimination of Israel, and last year called for Palestinians to renounce the right of return. For such opinions, he has been cursed publicly, beaten up and has received death threats.
Nusseibeh sees Bush's road map as noble in intention but vague in substance. "It does not define the two states and what will happen to the settlements and the refugees," he says. His plan complements the map, in that it attaches a destination. Launched at a ceremony attended by Bill Clinton, it advocates that Israel withdraw to the borders of 4 June 1967, so that a Palestinian state can be established. To minimise the number of settlers who have to leave their homes, "border modifications" may be introduced based on "equal territorial exchange" at a ratio of 1:1. Jerusalem will be "an open city, the capital of two states", with neither side exercising sovereignty over the holy places. The Palestinians will relinquish their right of return and be compensated. Refugees will return only to the state of Palestine, which will be demilitarised.
The plan is being pitched at grass-roots level to apply pressure to the leadership of both sides. "[Palestinians] have never been asked their opinion about any resolution, from partition in 1948 through to Bush's road map in 2003," Nusseibeh says.
But his consistent call for "non-violent uprisings" has not endeared him to Palestinian militants. He resolutely opposes Hamas and Islamic Jihad, calling for an end to their "martyr operations", which he dismisses as brazenly "immoral".
Nusseibeh has also incurred Arafat's wrath, attacking those who advocate the destruction of Israel. He believes that Jews also have a historical claim to Jerusalem. One morning on campus, he was found badly beaten and with a broken arm. He had been set upon by members of the Jordanian branch of Fatah. His call for a renouncement of the Palestinian right of return policy was a step too far for many, especially as the right of Palestinian refugees to their land is guaranteed by international law. But for Nusseibeh, this is about appeasing Israeli fears in order to achieve an acceptable peace and a viable Palestinian state.
During the 1991 Gulf war, Nusseibeh was accused of passing secret information about suitable Israeli targets for Baghdad's Scud missiles to the Iraqi ambassador to Tunisia. The charges proved baseless, but hostility still simmers. Last year, Uzi Landau, then Israel's minister of internal security, warned the Israeli public not to "be deceived by the gentle nature of Nusseibeh". He represents "the pretty face of terrorism", said Landau. Hostility from Palestinians is equally ferocious. This summer, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade threatened reprisals: "If Nusseibeh tries to make a deal and play merchant on the refugee issue, our reach is long - even longer than he expects."
Nusseibeh attributes failures in the official peace process to "lack of engagement from the people". If they become engaged, he thinks, "it might tilt the direction of Sharon and Arafat away from a security solution towards a realistic political solution". Even the US has been unable to push Israel to do what it refuses to do, he has said. "If Sharon feels he is being backed by his own people, he will be able to withstand the pressure and the same is true on the Palestinian side."
And what of his notorious Israeli partner, the former secret policeman Ami Ayalon? Having an ex-head of Shin Bet as your chief cohort might be hard to digest for some Palestinians, we suggest. Nusseibeh pauses. His relationship with Ayalon is more "a marriage of common interests than a partnership".
"We are trying to sell to the public that it is in our interests to reach this agreement. Ayalon knows a great deal about security and is therefore best suited to define that interest," he adds. Nusseibeh cites the example of Shimon Peres, a winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize and a promoter of peace who at the same time was the "father of settlements" on the West Bank. "I trust someone like Ayalon who stands up and says who he is."
He expects more opposition as the initiative gains support among the mainstream of both societies. With US and UN backing, the People's Voice can no longer be dismissed, but Nusseibeh harbours no illusions. We have been talking at al-Quds, the Arab university in Jerusalem where the Israeli "security fence" cuts right through the campus, cutting hundreds of Palestinians off from their only source of higher education.