Palestinian officials have repeatedly said they want a detailed timeline for talks that are expected to begin in earnest after a U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference in November or December. But although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has consistently resisted the notion of a deadline, they had never before made the matter a condition for talks.
On Tuesday, lead negotiator Ahmed Qureia tightened the screws.
"The Israeli prime minister has stated that he will not accept a timetable, and we say we will not accept negotiations without a timetable," Qureia said at a news conference with the European Union's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
He delivered the ultimatum as the two sides struggle to bridge yawning gaps ahead of the peace summit. It wasn't clear whether the Palestinians would really carry out the threat, or were trying to wrest concessions from Israel ahead of the conference.
In the past, deadlines for establishing a Palestinian state have been set and ignored.
No date has so far been set for the U.S.-sponsored summit, set to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, because the two sides remain so far apart on the starting point for talks. Israel wants a vague, joint statement of objectives. The Palestinians want a detailed outline that would address core issues that need to be resolved before peace can be achieved and a Palestinian state can be established.
These are final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have met several times in recent months to try to come up with a joint platform ahead of the meeting, and negotiating teams from both sides have recently entered the process.
At Tuesday's news conference, Qureia indicated the talks weren't going well.
"We haven't gotten closer yet concerning the issues," he said. "We are talking in general about the issues that should be included in the document. (But) we haven't yet touched the core issues."
What the Palestinians want, he said, is "a clear and specific document, without vagueness, that lays the basic foundation for all final status issues. Without that, the conference will be hindered."
In 2007, the Palestinians are still waiting, and "we don't want to go for open-ended negotiations," he said Tuesday.
Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said negotiations should be held behind closed doors, not through the media.
"We're not at the ultimatum stage," Eisin said. "They agreed to work to go forward, and we are committed to going forward to a joint statement."
While threatening to skip peace talks, Qureia said Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak were working with the U.S. security coordinator for the Mideast, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, to implement the first phase of the "road map" peace plan.
The internationally backed program foundered shortly after it was presented in June 2003 because neither Israel nor the Palestinians carried out their obligations under the first phase, which required Israel to halt settlement building and the Palestinians to disarm militant groups.
The third phase of the road map involves the establishment of a Palestinian state - by 2005.
In Egypt on Tuesday, Abbas lashed out against Israel for cutting fuel supplies to Gaza in an effort to pressure militants there to stop their daily rocket fire into southern Israel.
Gaza is ruled by Hamas militants who seized the territory in a violent confrontation with Fatah security forces loyal to Fatah. The Palestinians now have dueling governments in Hamas-ruled Gaza and in the West Bank, where Abbas has his headquarters, but Abbas still claims to represent Palestinian people in both territories.
"We have told the Israelis that they are wrong in adopting these measures, which we fully reject," Abbas said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. "We do not accept at all this collective punishment."
On Monday, Israel's attorney general held up the government's plan to cut back electricity supplies, demanding more work be done to prevent humanitarian harm.
Palestinians in Gaza rely on Israel for all of their fuel and more than half of their electricity.
If the energy cutbacks don't halt rocket attacks, then Israel plans to proceed with a large-scale invasion of Gaza.
In Israel on Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said a large-scale Israeli military operation against Palestinian rocket squads was drawing near.
"Every day that passes brings us closer to a broad operation in Gaza," Barak told Army Radio.