Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers are to travel to Washington a few days apart at the end of this month for talks with US President George W. Bush, starting a new round of American diplomacy to promote a Mideast peace plan and end 33 months of violence.
In another sign that nearly three years of violence might be nearing an end, a top Palestinian official spoke of extending a limited truce indefinitely.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' office said Wednesday that he would meet Bush at the White House on July 25. Administration officials confirmed that Abbas is to arrive at the end of the month.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due in Washington for talks with Bush on July 29, a trip that was originally scheduled for September but was moved up. It would be Sharon's eighth meeting with Bush.
In contrast, Abbas would be making the first trip to Washington by a Palestinian leader since Bush took office. Bush has refused to meet Yasser Arafat, charging that he is involved in terrorism. After Abbas took office on April 30, it was expected that he would visit Washington, but he refused to leave unless Israel removed its travel restrictions against Arafat.
Israel has confined Arafat to his battered headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah for a year and a half. During a brief trip to Europe that ended Wednesday, Sharon said Arafat is the main obstacle to implementing the "road map" peace plan, which calls for an end to violence and leads through three stages to creation of a Palestinian state in 2005.
Abbas countered that Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel must restore his freedom of movement. Arafat reluctantly appointed Abbas to the new post of premier under intense international pressure to share power.
Now, however, Arafat has "fully mandated and blessed" Abbas' trip, said lawmaker Saeb Erekat, who is close to Arafat. He said Abbas would visit Jordan and Egypt on his way to Washington.
The Palestinian statement quoted Abbas as saying that the main subject of the talks would be promoting the US-backed peace plan.
Abbas said the key issues would be stopping Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and freeing Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, according to the statement.
Also, Sharon and Abbas are expected to meet on Sunday, their fifth summit since Abbas took office.
A unilateral ceasefire declared by the main Palestinian groups on June 29 has provided an opportunity for intense US diplomacy. Though there have been sporadic Palestinian attacks, violence has been reduced significantly since the truce was called.
A major source of tension was removed early Wednesday when Israeli commandos freed an Israeli taxi driver kidnapped by Palestinians and taken to the West Bank. The Israeli was unharmed.
The military said all five of the Palestinians involved in the abduction were arrested, and they were not tied to main Palestinian groups. Palestinian officials condemned the kidnapping as a violation of the truce.