- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

From combined dispatches

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas yesterday declared an end to the rift with Yasser Arafat that has threatened U.S.-led peace efforts.

Mr. Abbas pledged his loyalty to Mr. Arafat as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, visiting London, was being rebuffed by Britain in his efforts to further isolate Mr. Arafat.

“The disputes are over and things are all right,” Mr. Abbas told reporters after meeting Mr. Arafat at his devastated headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The two leaders met to mend fences. Mr. Abbas threatened to quit as prime minister last week and resigned from a top policy-making committee headed by Mr. Arafat after some of his colleagues said he was being too soft in peacemaking with Israel.

As the rift widened with Mr. Arafat last week, some Palestinian officials said Mr. Arafat wanted to weaken Mr. Abbas. Western diplomats feared Mr. Arafat was trying to undermine a U.S.-backed “road map” intended to end more than 33 months of violence.

Mr. Arafat made no public comments after the talks in Ramallah. But Saeb Erekat, the former chief Palestinian negotiator during talks with Israel and a longtime Arafat ally, said all problems had been resolved.

“We were able to solve all problems, and President Arafat gave his full support to Abu Mazen,” he said, using Mr. Abbas’ nom de guerre. “Abu Mazen gave full support to President Arafat.”

The main Palestinian militant groups have declared a three-month truce, halting a suicide-bombing campaign in the 33-month-old uprising for a Palestinian state and raising hopes the road map will succeed.

But peace efforts have been stalled by disagreement over how many Palestinian prisoners Israel should release. Some Palestinian politicians have criticized Mr. Abbas because he has not persuaded Israel to free thousands of prisoners.

The Palestinians consider the release of prisoners a crucial sign of good will and of Israel’s commitment to the road map. But Israel says releasing militants who have killed Israelis could endanger the peace process rather than promote it.

Mr. Sharon urged Britain to cut ties with Mr. Arafat during talks with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in London yesterday.

But a British official said Mr. Straw “made it clear that the British position, which is also that of the European Union, is that we would continue to have dealings with Arafat.”

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an Israeli taxi driver in the West Bank has stoked Israeli fears that a unilateral truce by the Palestinians could break down because of rogue operations by Palestinian groups, forcing Israeli retaliation.

A top Palestinian official said Palestinian police will do all they can to free 61-year-old Eliyahu Goral, feared kidnapped by militants, and Palestinian prisoners in Israel called for his release.

In the search for the missing driver, Israel imposed a curfew on the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Mr. Goral’s cab was found abandoned and idling in an Arab section of Jerusalem on Friday.

Prisoner-representative committees at the Ashkelon and Shatah prisons also released a statement calling for Mr. Goral’s freedom.

Although no group has claimed responsibility for kidnapping Mr. Goral, Israeli officials fear he was abducted by militants looking for a prisoner swap.

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