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Diplomats Move to Avert Crisis in 'Road Map' Peace Plan - 2003-07-09

Diplomatic efforts are reported under way to avert a potential crisis in the road map to Middle East peace. The move comes after a threat by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to resign over criticism from within the Palestinian Authority regarding his handling of negotiations with Israel.

Israeli media report that special U.S. envoy John Wolf has urged Israel to release more than just several hundred Palestinian prisoners, and to speed up dismantling illegal settlement outposts in Palestinian areas.

The road map does not specifically demand that Israel release Palestinian prisoners. But Palestinians see prisoner releases as vital, to build confidence and to enable progress on other elements of the peace plan.

Last Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a plan to release several hundred Palestinian prisoners, but that fell far short of Palestinian demands. The move further weakened the position of Prime Minister Abbas, who recently negotiated a promise by the main Palestinian militant factions to freeze attacks against Israel for three months.

The militants want all prisoners released. Israel's refusal was cited by one faction of the militant group Islamic Jihad as the reason for a suicide attack Monday, in which one Israeli woman was killed. Other militants have warned the cease-fire could collapse over the prisoner issue.

The cease-fire is not part of the road map, but is seen by Mr. Abbas as a way to calm tensions and avoid a Palestinian civil war. Israel and the United States say a cease-fire is not enough, and they insist Mr. Abbas will have to move against the militants more aggressively in the near future, and dismantle their organizations, as outlined in the road map.

According to the peace plan, Israel was to immediately dismantle illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the government began a very public move against some of these outposts, it seems many new ones were established after the old ones were evacuated.

Although Prime Minister Abbas has the strong backing of the United States, he does not enjoy widespread popular support among Palestinians. He has come under growing criticism from within the main Palestinian faction, Fatah, to which both he and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat belong.

At an apparently stormy meeting Monday, Mr. Abbas was sharply criticized for his handling of negotiations with the Israelis, for having allegedly caved in to Israeli and American pressure, and having gotten very little in return. Mr. Abbas has threatened to resign, unless he can get his party's backing.

Because of the internal crisis, Mr. Abbas canceled a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, scheduled for Wednesday. Palestinian officials say a meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan could take place Thursday. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr has said he hopes that meeting will produce something significant.