Israel Refuses to Discuss Gaza Withdrawal Plan

Israeli officials are refusing to meet a group of Mideast mediators who are in the region to discuss Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search), officials said Wednesday.

Israel does not want to meet the envoys before making concrete decisions on its own positions. It also wants to meet first with two White House officials coming to Israel later this week, government officials said on condition of anonymity.

Representatives of the so-called Quartet — made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — were meeting with Palestinian officials on Wednesday.

The group is trying to push forward the Gaza withdrawal plan. It hopes the pullout will be the first step of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

Israel, however, refused to meet the diplomats during talks in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

The refusal was the latest sign that Israel is distancing itself from the road map, a broad peace place that envisions the formation of an independent Palestinian state through direct negotiations with Israel.

Sharon has refused to negotiate with the Palestinians as he prepares the Gaza pullout, which is scheduled to take place next year. Sharon says the Palestinians have failed to halt militant attacks on Israelis and aren't serious negotiating partners.

Instead, he has asked Egypt, which borders Gaza, to help retrain Palestinian security forces and help ensure quiet.

Christina Gallach, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, confirmed that the Israelis had called off a scheduled meeting.

She noted that at last month's summit of the Group of Eight industrial powers, participants had decided to send Quartet representatives to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss how the Gaza pullout could advance efforts the road map.

"The Quartet is in the immediate future not going to meet the Israeli representatives, as it had been foreseen," she said. She said she did not know why the Israelis had called off the talks.

The Israeli government officials said the time for working with the Quartet had not yet arrived. They expressed concern that European policies might hurt Israeli interests. Israel has often accused Europe of being pro-Palestinian.

While U.S. officials say they are committed to the road map, Washington has appeared to distance itself from the Quartet in recent months.

The Quartet was not mentioned in a set of letters that Sharon and President Bush exchanged in Washington last April.

In the letters, Israel presented and stated its plans for a Gaza withdrawal, while the United States offered unprecedented backing for long-held Israeli positions.

In his letter, Bush expressed support for Israel's plan to hold onto chunks of the West Bank under a final peace deal, and to prevent Palestinian refugees from settling in Israel after a Palestinian state is established.

The assurances enraged Palestinians, and several European countries criticized Bush's support.

The United States also appears to be at odds with Europe and the United Nations over how to deal with the Palestinians.

Washington refuses to talk directly to Yasser Arafat (search), while European officials continue to meet the veteran Palestinian leader.

Some officials believe Sharon doesn't want Israelis meeting with the Quartet envoys to make sure his "unilateral" pullout plan doesn't look like a diplomatic move. Sharon has portrayed the plan as a security measure meant to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians.

The plan has generated anger among settlers and their hard-line supporters in Israel, raising concerns of a potential extremist threat. Sharon admitted earlier this week that he felt he could be at risk.

Israel's Attorney General Meni Mazuz and Shin Bet internal security chief Avi Dichter will hold talks next week to decide how to deal with the rise of Jewish extremism, Justice Ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti said. The meeting was initially scheduled for Wednesday, but was postponed due to scheduling conflicts.

The threat of violence strikes a deep chord in Israel. Many politicians and security officials still blame themselves for ignoring the warning signs ahead of the 1995 assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) by an ultranationalist Jew.

Police Minister Tsahi Hanegbi on Tuesday gave the starkest warning yet.

"They (extremists) will assassinate the prime minister, a minister, an army official or a police official," Hanegbi told Israel TV's Channel Two on Tuesday. "They don't always succeed and they don't always have the means to carry out the acts. But we are not lacking extremists."

In new fighting Wednesday, Israeli troops shot and killed an armed Palestinian man in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus (search). Palestinians identified the man as an activist in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a Palestinian militant group.

Palestinian militants fired homemade rockets from Gaza toward the Israeli border town of Sderot (search). The rockets landed in open areas and caused no injuries or damage, the army said.

Two Israelis in Sderot were killed last week in a similar rocket attack, prompting a new Israeli incursion into northern Gaza.

Also in Gaza, an Israeli drone fired a missile at a car, and lightly wounded three bystanders, Palestinian hospital and security officials said.

Hamas said in a statement to The Associated Press that members of the militant group had been inside the vehicle, which was damaged, but escaped unharmed.

Medical officials said the wounded included a 62-year-old man, a 5-year-old boy and a 35-year-old man. The apparent airstrike came hours after Palestinian militants fired two rockets toward southern Israel, causing no injuries or damage.