RAMALLAH, West Bank – Yasser Arafat (search) asked Ahmed Qureia (search) on Tuesday to stay on as prime minister and form a new government, officials said, but their bitter dispute over control of the Palestinian security forces remained unresolved.
Conflicting accounts of Tuesday's meeting of the PLO leadership cast further uncertainty over the situation. While two officials who attended the meeting said Qureia had accepted Arafat's offer, the prime minister said he had not received a formal invitation.
Even if Qureia accepts, the lingering disagreement over the security forces threatened to lead to further confrontation and continued deadlock over a U.S.-backed peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.
Meanwhile, Israelis voted in local elections Tuesday, and early results showed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party (search) took some losses but rebuffed predictions that voters would severely punish Likud candidates because of Israel's troublesome security and economic situation.
Just nine months after an overwhelming loss to Likud in national elections, the Labor Party fared well in some mayor races. Apparently, local issues dominated, and party leaders admitted that it was difficult to project the results onto the national scene.
The United States and other international mediators have been closely watching Palestinian efforts to form a government, saying a stable leadership is needed to push the "road map" peace plan forward. Israel reacted cautiously to Tuesday's announcement.
Qureia currently heads an emergency Cabinet; its term expires Nov. 4. There had been some uncertainty over whether Qureia, upset by arguments with Arafat over control of the security forces, would agree to continue in the job.
Palestinian officials gave conflicting accounts about Tuesday's meeting of the PLO leadership, headed by Arafat.
Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and Abbas Zaki, a senior PLO official, said Qureia had accepted Arafat's invitation.
"The plan is to have this government ready" by the time the emergency Cabinet's term expires, Shaath said. "We do not want any more time wasted."
Qureia said he had not received a formal offer, which must come in writing, but indicated he would accept. "If things move in that direction, I think we will continue," he said.
Qureia's previous efforts to form a larger government have failed because of wrangling over appointments. In particular, Qureia had been unable to agree with Arafat over the key post of interior minister, which would control the various Palestinian security agencies.
Shaath said the interior minister's post so far remains unfilled.
"There will be a strong, a capable interior minister who will exercise all security responsibilities assigned to him," he said. "No names were discussed this morning, but as I said, the principles and the basis are all agreed to."
Israel and the United States say the forces must be consolidated under one body in order to be effective in dismantling militant groups. Qureia, like his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas (search), has said he would try to persuade militants to lay down their arms, but would not use force against them.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, said Tuesday that Hamas "is ready to discuss a cease-fire" with Qureia.
"But this does not mean that Hamas now has no power to retaliate and to make the Zionist enemy (Israel) pay the proper price for its crimes," Yassin said in an interview with the BBC Arabic service.
Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval said the Israelis were waiting to see results from Qureia.
"The test for Mr. Qureia ... will now be whether he will be able to lead a policy as dictated by the road map, mainly to take effective steps to break up the terrorist infrastructure and stop the violence," Shoval said.
"If indeed he will live up to those expectations, he can expect cooperation from Israel," Shoval added. "If, however, he will just do Yasser Arafat's bidding, then of course, the situation is not going to change for the better."
Israel has refused to deal with Arafat, saying he is responsible for attacks on Israelis, and has sought the emergence of an alternative Palestinian leadership.
President Bush, speaking at a news conference in Washington, said it would be difficult to make any progress on peace talks as long as attacks by Palestinian militants continue.
"It's essential that there be a focused effort to fight off terror," he said.
In violence on Tuesday, undercover Israeli troops killed a fugitive Palestinian militant in a West Bank refugee camp, witnesses said. Ibrahim Naneesh, 37, was a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group loosely linked to Arafat's Fatah faction.
The army said Naneesh was responsible for several attacks on Israeli civilians and fired at soldiers, who killed him. Soldiers found an M-16 and several magazines on the body. The witnesses said Naneesh was armed, but did not fire on the soldiers, who got out of a car and shot him.
Shortly after the incident, a second militant opened fire, the army said. Soldiers fired back and hit him. The wounded militant was taken to a Tulkarem hospital.