Palestinians expressed growing frustration on Wednesday over the pace of talks with Israel, and what they see as Israel's unwillingness to grant concessions. They warned that the current truce could be in jeopardy if progress was not achieved soon on crucial issues like Palestinian prisoner releases and Israeli troop withdrawals.
Israel said those issues remained open for discussion and emphasized that it was the Palestinians who canceled a planned meeting Wednesday between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.
At the same time, the US tried to nudge the peace effort forward by announcing plans to send aid to the Palestinian Authority. In another step, in meetings in the last few days, Daniel Kurtzer, the US ambassador to Israel, and John Wolf, a special envoy monitoring progress on the peace plan, have been urging Israel to consider releasing additional prisoners, Israeli officials and news media reports said.
The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations hit a snag after Israel announced on Sunday that it planned to release roughly 300 of the more than 5,000 seized since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Palestinians rejected the proposal as insufficient, and Abbas has been under fire from his own Fatah movement for not winning greater concessions in his recent talks with Sharon.
Abbas conferred with Palestinian leaders on Wednesday in a bid to mend the rift.
"I don't deny that we are going through internal difficulties," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian legislator who has been in contact with Abbas. "These are the labor pains of a new era."
Erekat and others said the Palestinian feuding reflected the disappointment that the Middle East peace initiative, known as the road map, has not yielded more since it was formally launched a month ago.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, the group responsible for many of the suicide bombings against Israel, said a truce declared last week could not be sustained if Israel did not meet Palestinian demands.
"We are patient, but patience has limits," Yassin said. The demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners "is a red line which we cannot pass."
Yassin spoke after meeting with an Egyptian delegation that is seeking to extend the truce pledges by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from three months to six months. Al-Fatah, the mainstream movement headed by the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Abbas, has agreed to a six-month ceasefire.
But the Israelis will have to make significant concessions if the momentum of the peace plan is to be sustained, Palestinians said on Wednesday.