Abbas to Travel to Washington Amid Efforts to Extend Truce

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The Palestinian Authority (search) is seeking to persuade militants to extend indefinitely a temporary halt to attacks on Israelis, a Palestinian official said Wednesday.

The effort comes as the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) announced he would travel to Washington this month to meet with President Bush (search). Israel also celebrated a commando raid that rescued a taxi driver who had been kidnapped and held for days in a West Bank pit.

Commandos freed the driver, Eliyahu Goral, and arrested his kidnappers, who the Israeli army said were not backed by Palestinian militant groups.

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said he was working to extend the June 29 cease-fire, and urged Israel to strengthen the truce by releasing more prisoners, dismantling settler outposts and softening its demands for the rapid disarming of Palestinian militant groups.

"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.

The Islamic Jihad and Hamas groups declared a three-month moratorium on attacks, while the Fatah movement headed by Yasser Arafat (search) declared a six-month truce. The three groups have been responsible for most of the homicide bombings and shootings that have killed hundreds of Israelis since September 2000.

Israel has pressed the Palestinians to crack down on armed militants, a move required by the U.S. backed "road map" plan that aims to end 33 months of violence and establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

The upcoming trip to Washington by Abbas and another one by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) appeared part of an effort by the United States to find a way out of the deadlock.

The announcement by Abbas that he would meet with Bush on July 25 was a display of independence by the prime minister, who has been under pressure to avoid travel until Israel restores full freedom of movement to Arafat.

However, Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat said Arafat -- who has been confined to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah for more 18 months -- approved the trip. The two have wrangled over sharing power since Arafat, under international pressure, appointed Abbas in April.

Sharon will meet with Bush on July 29.

Abbas said key issues would be stopping Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and freeing the estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, an issue not covered in the road map but has become a sticking point in negotiations.

Israel last week released several hundred prisoners.

It was unclear whether armed groups would support the Palestinian proposal to extend the truce. Amr said officials had discussed the idea with militants, whose response was noncommittal. "They said, 'Let's see what the Israelis do,"' he said.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a top leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, dismissed the idea.

"These are illusions," said Rantisi, whose organization does not recognize the right to a permanent Jewish state in the Middle East.

The Israeli government also was not impressed with the proposed truce extension. 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."

Israel's security establishment believes that the militant groups are using the lull to regroup by recruiting new activists, replacing a decimated leadership cadre, and smuggling weapons.

The Palestinian Authority says a crackdown could trigger civil war. On Wednesday, several dozen Palestinians protested Abbas' government in Ramallah, shooting their guns in the air.

Despite the disagreements, hopes for a durable cease-fire were boosted as Israel celebrated the release of cabbie Goral.

An Israeli army colonel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the kidnappers apparently were operating independently of main militant groups, and that they likely attempted to enlist the help of larger militant groups but were turned down.

The release was met by relief in Israel. Goral, 61, arrived at his Tel Aviv area home Wednesday morning to find a street party, with neighbors toasting his return with champagne and vodka.

The abduction was the latest in several violent incidents that have tested the brittle truce. Three people have been killed in what appeared to be attacks by renegade militants since the truce was declared.