Mideast Road To Peace Stalled

mideast peace talks/roadmap graphic
AP
Now that Israeli forces have pulled out of Bethlehem and parts of the Gaza Strip, the peace process seems to have stalled.

An internal Palestinian struggle is overshadowing U.S. efforts to implement the peace "road map," while the White House has moved up a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger.

Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs failed to make progress in the latest round of talks. Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan demanded that Israel release all 6,000 of its Palestinian prisoners and pull out of other West Bank towns. But Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz refused. He told Dahlan that Israel won't make major concessions until the Palestinians dismantle terrorist groups.

Sharon had been scheduled to visit Washington in September, but the White House moved the visit forward in an attempt to keep up the momentum in the peace process. Sharon is likely to tell the president that it's time for the Palestinians to keep their part of the deal and disarm terrorist groups.

Israel Radio said Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was also expected to visit Washington this summer, the latest signal of U.S. support for the beleaguered leader.

Palestinian officials now admit that Yasser Arafat is trying to weaken his prime minister and long-time deputy. According to the Palestinian information minister, Arafat sees Abbas as a successor, and that's created tension. Abbas threatened to resign, after Arafat's Fatah movement accused him of being too soft in negotiations with Israel. But Arafat needs to keep Abbas on board because if he quits, the world would blame Arafat for sabotaging the peace process.

Abbas is facing continuing opposition within his own Fatah party from critics who feel he has failed to win any concessions from Israel — most important, the release of Palestinian prisoners. That opposition could topple Abbas, several Palestinian officials said.

As a goodwill gesture, Israel has released a few hundred prisoners but has refused to free those implicated in violent attacks on Israelis or members of Islamic militant groups. Palestinians demand that the bulk of about 7,000 prisoners be released, and militant leaders say they'll cancel a cease-fire declared less than two weeks ago if Israel does not comply.

With thousands behind bars, most Palestinians know someone who is in jail. Two weeks ago, Abbas did something remarkable for the low-key, soft-spoken leader. He plunged into a noisy crowd gathered outside his West Bank office to demand he press harder for the freeing of prisoners. Demanding a megaphone, Abbas told the protesters: "Be sure that we will exert our utmost in order to empty all prisons of prisoners."

"This issue will either make or break him," Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat said Friday. He added that the new peace plan had raised expectations — yet to be realized — among Palestinians that life would be easier: Israeli military forces would pull back and lift roadblocks that have hindered travel and ruined the economy.

Further Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and the West Bank are conditional on Palestinian efforts to police any militant activity.

Abbas has refused a showdown with militants, fearing it could set off a civil war. Instead, he is trying to negotiate a permanent end to their attacks against Israelis.

A West Bank Fatah leader, Amin Makboul, said Abbas' leadership could collapse within weeks if there's no progress on the issue of prisoners and further Israeli troop pullbacks.

"The pressure will increase on him, and he will resign," Makboul said.

Complicating the internal dispute, Arafat appears to be trying to reassert more control over Palestinian diplomacy.

A statement from the Fatah Revolutionary Council said the advisory body within Fatah would meet on a regular basis "to enable (it) to assume its leading role in drawing up the movement's policies and follow up the implementation of its decisions," the Palestine Media Center said.

Under the law creating the position of premier, Arafat's Fatah executive retains the final say in talks with Israel. The latest Fatah statement, pledging constant supervision of Abbas, indicates that Arafat will retain hands-on involvement, despite an Israeli and U.S. boycott over charges that he is tainted with terrorism.

Sharon leaves Sunday for a four-day visit to Britain and Norway.