Peacemaking efforts hit another snag when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said a planned summit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been put on hold because of the latter's insistence that Israel promise to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners.
"We offered to meet with Abu Mazen [Abbas], but apparently he is not interested," Olmert was quoted as saying during a meeting of lawmakers from his Kadima party on Sunday.
"He is conditioning a meeting on the release of prisoners and we will not release any prisoners until [captured soldier] Gilad Shalit is released," he added.
Abbas has denied demanding a prisoner release as a condition for a summit. Israel is insisting that before it frees any of the estimated 8,000 Palestinians it is holding, the soldier, captured in June by Hamas-linked militants in a cross-border raid, must be returned.
Olmert announced late last month that he soon hoped to hold a meeting with Abbas, but the preparations were bogged down over the prisoners. The two have met only once since Olmert took office in March, an informal chat in Jordan.
But the disagreements over prisoners and a summit are not the main impediments to diplomatic progress. Internal Palestinian and Israeli political turmoil and control of the Palestinian government by Hamas -- which does not recognize Israel or agree to renounce violence -- are larger obstacles in the way of US efforts toward peace talks, which have been stalled for six years.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the region this month to try to prop up Abbas, leader of the moderate Fatah Party, which was ousted by Hamas in January elections. Abbas was elected separately a year earlier and remains in office, but his power and influence have been severely curtailed.
Also, Abbas has been unable to persuade Hamas to moderate its positions to allow his party to come back into the government -- the only realistic possibility for persuading the West to end its punishing aid cutoff against the Hamas regime that has bankrupted the Palestinian Authority, causing widespread hardships that have spilled over into Fatah-Hamas clashes.
Olmert is embroiled in his own political problems, his popular support decimated by the summer's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that produced questionable results. His solution is to woo an extreme hardline party to shore up his coalition majority, angering the dovish members of his current team and further clouding peace prospects with the Palestinians.
During the Cabinet meeting, senior military officials said they believe Hamas has managed to smuggle anti-aircraft weapons into Gaza for the first time, participants said.
If true, this could pose a serious challenge to Israel, which relies heavily on its air force to attack militants in Gaza.