Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will travel to Washington at the end of this month for talks with US President George W. Bush, Israeli officials said yesterday, as the US tries to nurture momentum behind a fragile ceasefire and a plan for Mideast peace.
In a threat to peace moves, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas faced continuing opposition within his own Fatah party from critics who feel he has failed to win any concessions -- most importantly the release of Palestinian prisoners -- from Israel in renewed contacts. That opposition could topple Abbas and end fledgling moves toward peace, several Palestinian officials said.
As a goodwill gesture, Israel has released a few hundred prisoners but has refused to free those implicated in violent attacks on Israelis or members of Islamic militant groups. Palestinians demand the bulk of about 7,000 prisoners be released, and militant leaders say they'll cancel a ceasefire declared less than two weeks ago if Israel does not comply.
Earlier this week, Abbas briefly threatened to resign as prime minister unless Fatah endorsed his handing of contacts with Israel. He also quit the Fatah Central Committee, though his resignation was rejected.
"It's part of the labor pains of a new era," Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat said yesterday.
Seeking his public's backing as he went into talks with Israel, the Palestinian prime minister made the release of prisoners a cardinal issue. With thousands behind bars, most Palestinians know someone who is in jail.
Two weeks ago, Abbas did something remarkable for the low-key, soft-spoken leader: he plunged into a noisy crowd that had gathered outside his West Bank office to demand he press harder for the freeing of prisoners.
Demanding a megaphone, Abbas told the protesters: "Be sure that we will exert our utmost in order to empty all prisons of prisoners."
"This issue will either make or break him," Erekat said. He added that the new peace plan had raised expectations -- yet to be realized -- among Palestinians that life would be easier: Israeli military forces would pull back and lift roadblocks that have hindered travel and ruined the economy.
Israeli troops did pull out of parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but further withdrawals are conditional on Palestinian efforts to police any militant activity.
A meeting late Thursday between Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan ended without any progress on the issue of prisoners, Erekat said.
In the two-hour meeting at an Israel-Gaza crossing point, Mofaz demanded the Palestinians take action against the militant groups; otherwise, progress toward peace would be impossible, Israel Radio reported.
Abbas has refused a showdown with militants, fearing it could set off a civil war. Instead, he is trying to negotiate a permanent end to their attacks against Israelis.
A West Bank Fatah leader, Amin Makboul, said Abbas' leadership could collapse within weeks if there's no progress on the issue of prisoners and further Israeli troop pullbacks.
"The pressure will increase on him and he will resign," Makboul said.
Complicating the internal dispute, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- who has been partially sidelined since Abbas was appointed premier in April after US pressure -- appeared to be trying to reassert more control over Palestinian diplomacy.