JERUSALEM – The Bush Administration is pushing a new round of Mideast diplomacy with White House visits by the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers later this month, as a truce by Palestinian groups has eased tensions slightly.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) will make his first trip to the White House on July 25, his office said Wednesday. The trip is also the first by a Palestinian leader since Bush took office.
Abbas' visit and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) on July 29 could be signs that the truce and pressure to end 33 months of violence are working. The United States and other sponsors of Mideast peace want to push forward on the so-called "road map," which calls for an end to violence and leads through three stages to creation of a Palestinian state in 2005.
A top Palestinian official talked of extending a limited truce indefinitely. Israel said it was skeptical.
Sharon's trip, which will be his eighth, was originally set for September but was pushed up, apparently to sustain momentum in the peace moves.
Abbas' trip looked like a display of independence by the prime minister, who has been under pressure to avoid travel until Israel restores full freedom of movement to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search).
Israel has confined Arafat to his battered headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah for a year and a half, charging that he is involved with terrorism. During a brief trip to Europe that ended Wednesday, Sharon charged that Arafat is the main obstacle to implementing the "road map."
Abbas countered that Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority (search), and Israel must restore his freedom of movement.
After Abbas took office on April 30, it was expected that he would visit Washington, but he refused to leave unless Israel removed its travel restrictions against Arafat. Bush has refused to meet Arafat, charging that he is involved in terrorism.
But Arafat has "fully mandated and blessed" Abbas' trip, said lawmaker Saeb Erekat, who is close to Arafat. He said Abbas would visit Jordan and Egypt on his way to Washington.
The Palestinian statement quoted Abbas as saying that the main subject of the talks would be promoting the U.S.-backed "road map."
Abbas said the key issues would be stopping Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and freeing Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, according to the statement.
Also, Sharon and Abbas are expected to meet on Sunday, their fifth summit since Abbas took office.
A unilateral cease-fire declared by the main Palestinian groups on June 29, halting attacks against Israelis, has provided an opportunity for intense U.S. diplomacy. Though there have been sporadic Palestinian attacks, violence has been reduced significantly since the truce was called.
One source of tension was removed early Wednesday when Israeli commandos freed an Israeli taxi driver kidnapped by Palestinians and taken to the West Bank. The Israeli was unharmed.
The military said all five of the Palestinians involved in the abduction were arrested, and they were not tied to main Palestinian groups. Palestinian officials had condemned the kidnapping as a violation of the truce.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Wednesday that efforts were underway to extend the truce. In their declarations, the Islamic militants -- Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- called a three-month truce, while Fatah, headed by Arafat and Abbas, opted for a six-month moratorium.
Amr said the truce should be open-ended. He urged Israel to strengthen the truce by softening its demand that the Palestinians quickly disarm militant groups, along with releasing Palestinian prisoners and dismantling unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts.
"We have a plan to transform the (cease-fire) from a limited one to one that is for an indefinite period of time," he told The Associated Press.
However, Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi dismissed the idea as "dreams."
Also, Israel was lukewarm. Dore Gold, a Sharon adviser, called the cease-fire an "internal Palestinian matter" and said an extension would not change Israel's demand that the militants be disarmed.
"Israel works with the road map," Gold said. "The critical first step the Palestinian Authority must take is the dismantlement of the terror infrastructure." Abbas refuses to confront the militant groups, fearing a civil war.