- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

JERUSALEM — U.S. Middle East envoy John Wolf met with a top Palestinian official yesterday to try to ease a crisis within the Palestinian leadership that prompted Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to threaten to quit, a diplomat said.

In Washington, meanwhile, a senior U.S. official said the government would grant $20 million to the Palestinian Authority, but bypassing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The aid is meant to bolster Mr. Abbas, the official said.

The United States and Israel pressed Mr. Arafat to appoint Mr. Abbas as prime minister in April, charging that Mr. Arafat is tainted by terrorism.

The aid decision reflected intense U.S. diplomacy aimed at ending 33 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence.

Israeli media reports said Mr. Wolf would also meet with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and urge Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners and dismantle more illegal settlement outposts, moves that Palestinians have been demanding and which would bolster Mr. Abbas’ position.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Mr. Wolf was “exploring ways of how to advance the peace process, how to speed it up, how to move it along.”

A diplomat confirmed Mr. Wolf’s meeting with Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan yesterday and indicated that meetings with Israeli officials were also planned.

On Tuesday, Mr. Abbas threatened to resign unless his party backed his tactics in talks with Israel, Palestinian officials said. The three largest Palestinian militant groups declared a unilateral cease-fire on June 29, but say it will collapse unless Israel releases the bulk of thousands of Palestinian prisoners it holds.

Yesterday, Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin said the release of prisoners “is a red line which we cannot pass.”

Speaking after a meeting with Egyptian security officials in the Gaza Strip, Sheik Yassin said his group remained committed to the truce, but that it needed to see a mass prisoner releases by Israel.

“We … told them that we are going to be patient, but patience is limited,” he said.

Egyptian officials said the delegation would meet leaders of the three main Palestinian militant groups, urging them to maintain the cease-fire.

Underscoring the fragile state of Israeli-Palestinian peace moves, Israeli soldiers overnight shot and killed 27-year-old Iyad Halanesh and seriously wounded his 26-year-old wife during an operation in the West Bank to arrest Mr. Halanesh’s brother, a member of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement, Palestinian sources said.

The army said the arrested militant had planned to carry out a shooting attack yesterday.

On Tuesday, as internal tensions rose in the Palestinian leadership, Mr. Abbas called off a meeting with Mr. Sharon set for yesterday. Some officials blamed Israel’s refusal to release more prisoners and others cited a lack of support for Mr. Abbas from fellow political leaders.

Also Tuesday, in a largely symbolic gesture, Mr. Abbas resigned from Fatah’s Central Committee, Fatah officials said. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday that President Bush “is confident” in Mr. Abbas.

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