- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

JERUSALEM — A planned summit between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers fell apart yesterday as a U.S.-backed peace plan hit a rough patch over a Palestinian shooting attack and Israeli plans for a limited prisoner release.

The Palestinians reacted with scorn over Israel’s announcement that it would release 440 Palestinian prisoners today. The Palestinians want more freed and say the list contains few long-serving detainees.

In protest, they called off a summit set for today between Prime Ministers Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon, Palestinian sources said.

Israeli sources, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the talks were canceled. They denied Israeli media reports that the Israeli side pulled out of the meeting because of the shooting attack, which wounded four Israelis.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas last met July 20, before having separate talks with President Bush in Washington aimed at pushing forward the “road map” peace plan, which has stalled over the prisoner issue and demands for a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat called for U.S. intervention to avert “the development of a major crisis” in the peace process. He said the only way to defuse the crisis was “with the intervention of the American administration to ensure the implementation of the first phase of the road map.”

The prisoner issue is not mentioned in the road map, but it is often cited by the Palestinians as crucial for the peace plan to move forward.

U.S. envoy John Wolf has been in the region since Friday, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian security officials. A U.S. government official said that Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will be arriving next week. But the official said no other high-level visits were planned, even though the peace plan was encountering “very rough going.”

Sunday night’s shooting ambush of an Israeli car near Bethlehem was the latest violence to mar a cease-fire by Palestinian militants declared June 29. It also was the first attack in the Bethlehem area since Israel handed the town over to Palestinian security a month ago under the peace plan.

A woman and her 9-year-old daughter were seriously wounded, and two other children were slightly injured. In response, Israel said it would not transfer more areas to Palestinian control until the gunmen were apprehended.

Militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade claimed responsibility. The group, affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, is composed of loosely linked bands of militants throughout the West Bank.

Under the road map, which aims to end violence and establish a Palestinian state by 2005, Israel is to withdraw gradually from Palestinian areas it occupied during the last three years of fighting. The Palestinians are to disarm militant groups — something Mr. Abbas is reluctant to do for fear of sparking a civil war.

On Monday, Israel published a list of 342 Palestinian security prisoners and 97 criminal inmates it plans to free, including some members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The army said most of the prisoners would be released today, dropped off at four checkpoints in the West Bank and one in Gaza.

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