Mideast Peace Plan Grinds Forward

A member of the Palestinian security force stands ready as U.S peace envoy John Wolf arrives for a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza City Tuesday, June 17, 2003. Wolf, the head of the U.S. monitoring team, held talks with Abbas ahead of the prime minister's meeting with Palestinian militias later in the day. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The Palestinian prime minister, who is making a final push to halt attacks on Israelis, met Tuesday with a U.S. envoy dispatched to the region to supervise implementation of a troubled Mideast peace plan.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad say in principle they're ready for a cease-fire if Israel stops targeting their leaders and releases prisoners, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. Palestinian officials are cautiously optimistic that they'll achieve a cease-fire in the coming days.

The head of the U.S. monitoring team, John Wolf, held talks with Mahmoud Abbas ahead of the prime minister's meeting with Palestinian militias later in the day.

On Monday, Egyptian mediators went home without a firm agreement from Hamas and other armed groups to lay down arms, but Palestinian officials said they are confident a deal could be reached in the coming days.

The militants have said they are willing, in principle, to halt attacks, but have attached conditions: Israel must halt targeted killings of Palestinians suspected of involvement in violence and other military strikes, release prisoners and withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told parliament Monday that he would continue his offensive against Hamas and said his government would pursue terrorists "in every place and at every time until victory."

Israel also says a cease-fire, or so-called "hudna," can only be a step toward dismantling the armed groups.

"They have to take immediate actions in order to put an end to terrorism, violence, and incitement here in the region," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Abbas has said he will not use force against the militias for fear of triggering civil war.

The United States has not taken sides publicly in this dispute. Israel has sent the head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, to Washington to brief National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top officials on the government's position regarding Hamas and a hudna.

In Washington on Monday, Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rice, to prepare for a potential round of talks next weekend in the Middle East.

In another development, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the wife of imprisoned West Bank leader Marwan Barghouti early Tuesday, and told her Israel would release Barghouti in the next two days. Barghouti is on trial for murder, charged with complicity in terror attacks that killed 26 Israelis.

Israeli officials refused to comment on the report, and there has been no hint that Israel would free Barghouti during his trial.

The Hamas-Israel clash, which has included a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and helicopters strikes in Gaza over the past week, has caused dozens of casualties on both sides and endangered the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Palestinians involved in the Egyptian-mediated talks with the Palestinian factions said Egypt would invite all factions to Cairo in the coming days. Previous rounds of talks there have not produced results.

Abbas' task is daunting. Not only does he face the Islamic militant Hamas, the largest and deadliest of the militias, but he has also been unable to persuade the military wing of his own Fatah faction to halt attacks against Israelis.

After Monday's session with the Egyptian mediators, top Hamas official Ismail Abu Shanab said it was premature to talk about a cease-fire. "Now is not a time for truce. It is time for solidarity and standing united against Israeli attacks on our people," he said.

A source close to the talks said U.S. mediators would press Israel to end the targeted killings, and that if it succeeded, the militant groups would then agree to a truce.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Egyptians were asking for a written American guarantee of Israel's commitment on this issue, and on troop withdrawals and other steps implementing the road map.

Israeli officials insisted that they would continue targeting the militants and rejected the idea of a cease-fire that did not include a dismantling of the militias, as called for in the road map.

Speaking to the Israeli parliament, Sharon charged that Hamas had unleashed a "new wave of terror," noting Wednesday's suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus that killed 17 people, and said Israel would continue targeting terrorists.

He noted the recent helicopter strikes also killed Palestinian civilians, but said, "This was not our intention."

Referring to President Bush's call for a global cutoff of funds to Hamas, Sharon said, "Because of our position, the voices against Hamas in the world are increasing, and there are calls to increase pressure on this murderous group. This is what we have done, and we will continue to do it."

Sharon repeated his vague offer of "painful concessions" for peace, but added he will "not give anything as long as terror, violence and incitement continue."

During more than 32 months of violence, 2,400 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 801 on the Israeli side.

The "road map" — authored by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — is a three-stage plan that begins with a halt to all violence and is to lead to a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sharon and Abbas both accepted the road map at the June 4 summit in Jordan with Bush, though Israel expressed numerous reservations.

Among other actions, the Palestinians are required to end violence against Israel, and Israel is to end settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza — areas the Palestinians want for their state.