Israelis and Palestinians have met in Britain to hold their highest-level talks since the failed Taba meetings of January 2001. Key figures in the Northern Ireland peace process were brought in for the first time to advise the belligerent parties.

In three days of discussions, hosted by the Guardian, Irish politicians, including the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist party, urged both sides in the Middle East to seek outside help in moving the conflict out of its impasse.

“If you had said 10 years ago that there would be peace in Northern Ireland or South Africa, many would have been extremely sceptical, but there is no reason why the Middle East should not take the same road,” Mr McGuinness said.

For the past 18 months senior Palestinians and Israelis have only had snatched meetings on an individual basis. Yesterday’s talks brought together two Palestinian ministers with the speaker and deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and marked a rare chance for the parties to debate, away from the pressures of conflict.

The Israelis and Palestinians said they had learned lessons they would take back to the region. Several plans for pushing forward the stalled peace process began to take shape, including joint Israeli- Palestinian initiatives.

The secret talks, chaired by Jonathan Freedland, were held at Weston House, a country house near Stafford where Northern Ireland negotiations were conducted last year.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, said that the Northern Ireland delegates were “great evangelists for their peace process and were keen to offer practical advice and heartfelt encouragement. The two situations are, of course, different in many ways. But this group found so much in common and genuinely felt they learned much from each other over the three days.”

As well as Avraham Burg, speaker of the Knesset, the Israeli side included General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former chief of staff of the Israeli army; Yossi Beilin, the former justice minister and one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo peace accords; and Naomi Chazan, the deputy speaker of the Knesset.

The Palestinian side included Professor Nabeel Kassis, a Palestinian minister without portfolio; Yezid Sayigh, a former negotiator; and Salim Tamari, another former negotiator. Mr Burg and Mr Beilin are members of the Israeli Labour party, which is in Mr Sharon’s coalition government.

The Northern Ireland quartet was made up of: Martin McGuinness, now Northern Ireland education minister; David Ervine, who temporarily walked out of Weston Park talks last year; Mark Durkan, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party; and Sir Reg Empey, one of the leaders of the Ulster Unionist party.

Absent from the talks was anyone from the Likud party, which is led by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

New initiatives to emerge from yesterday’s talks include:

  • creation of a shadow Israeli-Palestinian government as an alternative to Mr Sharon’s government
  • drafting of a peace plan that will flesh out the proposals at Taba, including setting out for the first time an exact figure of how many of the 3.5 million Palestinians will be given the right to return
  • a draft document setting out two or three points about how to secure peace to be signed by key Israeli and Palestinian figures and published.

This piece ran on Saturday June 1, 2002 in the Guardian in London.