Israel and the Palestinians postponed their first summit meeting since the Gaza pullout after preparatory talks failed on Monday to find a basis for its success.
Differences remained over Palestinian calls for Israel to release long-serving Palestinian prisoners and pull troops away from West Bank cities, moves that could bolster moderate President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a January parliamentary poll.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been due to meet on Tuesday, a month after Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, ending 38 years of military rule in the coastal territory where 1.4 million Palestinians live and spurring hopes of progress in peace efforts.
Announcing the delay, Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told reporters: “The meeting could take place at the end of the month or at the beginning of next month depending on the preparations.”
Abbas is due to meet U.S. President Bush at the White House on Oct. 20 to discuss how to advance a U.S.-backed peace “road map” stalled by violence.
“We regret that the meeting is not going to happen tomorrow,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
But he added: “I think everyone understands that we want such a meeting to have tangible benefits to bring progress to people on both sides, and that’s why it has to be planned and it has to be worked on beforehand.”
Commenting on the Palestinians’ hopes for the summit, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said they were seeking the release of 20 prisoners who have each spent more than 20 years in Israeli jails and a troop pullback from West Bank cities, beginning in Bethlehem.
Joint Israeli-Palestinian committees will try to bridge differences over prisoners and West Bank city handovers, officials from both sides said.
“There are still gaps. We are going to work very hard with our Palestinian partners to try to overcome those gaps and we’re hopeful that it will be possible to have a summit, not in the distant future, but when Mr. Abbas returns from his trip to Washington,” Regev said.
Israel has balked at freeing Palestinians who have killed its citizens.
Sharon, fresh from a leadership battle in his rightist Likud party over the Gaza pullout, appears reluctant to bend and is expected to use the summit to press demands that Abbas disarm factions dedicated to destroying Israel.
In bloodshed near the Gaza frontier, Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinians who the army said were spotted crawling near the border fence and ignored calls to halt.
A Palestinian security official said they were unarmed and had intended to sneak into Israel to find work.