US-supervised truce talks ended without agreement early yesterday, with Israelis and Palestinians arguing over who should take the first steps, and hours later Israel staged arrest raids in three West Bank villages.
Despite wide gaps, three-way truce talks were to resume later yesterday, and an agreement on a ceasefire was widely expected before Monday -- the tentative date, according to Palestinian officials, for a meeting between US Vice President Dick Cheney and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Cairo.
Cheney said earlier this week he would only meet with Arafat once a ceasefire was in place.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a Cheney-Arafat meeting early next week was "certainly possible," and suggested the timing was intended, in part, to make sure Israel lifted its travel ban on Arafat ahead of next week's crucial Arab summit in Beirut.
The US wants Arafat to be able to attend the summit, during which Saudi Arabia is to present a plan offering Israel peace with the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal from all occupied territories.
The groundbreaking plan -- which, if adopted, would be the first such offer by the Arab world -- has been welcomed by the US, the UN and the EU. Saudi Arabia has said it would not present the plan in Arafat's absence.
Sharon has linked Arafat's departure from the Palestinian territories to a ceasefire. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday that Israel has promised Cheney that if he invites Arafat to meet him, Israel would let the Palestinian leader go.
"We have said this both to Cheney and to Arafat, and what we said is binding," Peres told Israel Radio.
In the latest round of truce talks, based on an agreement brokered last year by CIA chief George Tenet, Israelis and Palestinians remained far apart on a timetable and the sequence of steps required by both sides.
Israel wants to implement the plan in four to five weeks -- double the time envisioned by the Palestinians, participants said.
Israel says in the first stage, the Palestinians must disarm militias and arrest suspected militants, while the Palestinians insist that Israel first withdraw its troops to positions they held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.
Despite the difficulties, both sides were optimistic.
"This is the continuation of tough bargaining," said Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh. "It is not simple, but it has more of a chance now than a short time ago."
The Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, said the gaps were "huge," but that both sides are working hard to bridge them.
US envoy Anthony Zinni is working on a bridging proposal, to be presented to the two sides today, said a Palestinian official.
After the last round of talks ended early yesterday, Israeli troops raided three Palestinian-controlled villages near the West Bank town of Jenin and arrested more than 20 people, Palestinian officials said.