Egypt’s foreign minister met with Palestinian leaders Tuesday to push for a halt to Palestinian attacks against Israelis, a first step toward restarting talks over a stalled international peace plan.
In another development, a Jewish settler leader said that the Settlers' Council had rejected a two-step proposal by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to dismantle some settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Shaul Goldstein, deputy chairman of the council, said that under the plan, presented Monday by a senior official from Sharon’s office, in exchange for the dismantling of several settlements, the government would guarantee that no more would be dismantled until there is a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
The visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher came amid signs that diplomacy is picking up after months of deadlock over the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.
U.S. State Department officials John Wolf and David Satterfield also are in the region this week to discuss the plan, the first high-level American presence in more than a month.
Egyptian minister's visit
In Tel Aviv, Maher met with the U.N. representative to the region, Terje Roed-Larsen, for about an hour, diplomatic sources said.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Roed-Larsen expressed concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.N. diplomat also warned of growing chaos in the Palestinian areas, saying it has weakened the Palestinian Authority and strengthened the position of militants.
Maher then traveled to the West Bank for talks with Yasser Arafat and other senior Palestinians.
After the meeting, Maher said he delivered a message from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and came to hear Arafat’s “view of the future.” He said he was returning to Egypt with a letter from Arafat “that includes the important steps that the Palestinians would do on the way of achieving hopes.”
Arafat said they had “agreed on various important steps.”
Neither man elaborated.
Maher was accompanied by Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who has played a key role in efforts to persuade Palestinian militant groups to halt their attacks on Israelis.
“Egypt is exerting efforts to unify the positions of the Palestinian organizations around the Palestinian Authority. The effort continues and it will be continuing,” Maher said.
A senior Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity there was still no agreement about renewing cease-fire negotiations with the militants.
Earlier, Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity that the talks also would focus on preparations for an Arab League summit in Tunisia in March. Saudi Arabia has said it will try to revive an initiative at the summit calling for Israel to withdraw from occupied land in exchange for normal relations with the Arab world.
Satterfield, a frequent visitor, was last in the region in December, while Wolf, who is supposed to head a team monitoring implementation of the peace plan, has stayed away since Palestinians blew up a U.S. convoy in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 15, killing three American security guards.
The Americans will be meeting with representatives from both sides during the week. Palestinians said a three-way meeting also was planned, but a Western diplomat refused to confirm or deny that.
Both sides fail to meet first obligations
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have complied with the first requirements of the peace plan, formally launched in June by President Bush and backed by the European Union, United Nations and Russia.
Both Israel and the Palestinians have failed to meet their first obligations. The Palestinians have not dismantled violent groups responsible for deadly attacks against Israelis, and Israel has not removed dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, backed by Egypt, has been trying unsuccessfully for months to secure a pledge from the militants to stop attacks.
Maher was in Israel for talks Dec. 22, but when he tried to pray at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, extremist Palestinians tried to attack him. Maher was shaken but unhurt.
Maher has no plans to meet with Israeli officials, Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials said.
Israel has said it would not formally accept a cease-fire with the militants, demanding that Qureia follow terms of the peace plan and dismantle the groups. However, Israel also said that if Palestinian attacks are halted, Israeli military operations would be scaled back or stopped.
In the absence of diplomatic progress, Sharon is threatening to unilaterally impose a boundary on the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Israel arrested the head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Palestinian sources said. The Israeli army confirmed the arrest of Malek al Jalad, 30.
The brigades, a violent group loosely linked to Arafat’s Fatah faction, has killed scores of Israelis during the past three years of fighting.