RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said Saturday he cannot impose law and order in the Palestinian areas until Israel hands over control of West Bank cities, and he urged it to return to talks concerning their transfer.
Israel had promised to hand over five cities following a Feb. 8 cease-fire declaration but suspended talks after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed five Israelis at a Tel Aviv night club last weekend.
"We have no control on the ground," Abbas told a news conference in Ramallah.
But Israeli officials said there would be no more talks until the Palestinians find those behind the Tel Aviv bombing, and they accused Abbas of dragging his feet. Islamic Jihad (search) leaders claimed responsibility for the Feb. 25 bombing.
Abbas, Palestinians officials said, will go to Washington within the next 10 days to meet President Bush, making him the first Palestinian leader to visit the U.S. capital since the outbreak of Palestinian-Israeli violence in September 2000. The United States refused to deal with Abbas's predecessor, Yasser Arafat (search), accusing him of fomenting violence.
No exact date has been set for the visit, the official said on condition of anonymity. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Washington during her visit to the region last month.
In a positive sign that efforts to make peace are alive, Jordan's foreign minister will visit Israel later Saturday for the first time since the Palestinian uprising started, Palestinian officials said.
Hani al-Mulqi's trip follows the recent return of his country's ambassador to Israel and an apparent improvement in Jordanian-Israeli relations since the Feb. 8 summit in Egypt, where the Palestinian and Israeli leaders pledged to end violence.
Al-Mulqi is expected to meet Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah before holding talks with Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Tel Aviv, the Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity. Al-Mulqi is expected to raise Jordan's position on borders, the holy city of Jerusalem and water resources.
Abbas, who has been under pressure from Israel and the United States to crack down on militants, said Palestinian forces would only be effective once Israeli troops leave West Bank cities.
"Nobody can say we hold responsibility for the situation because we do not have a presence in the cities," he said.
Abbas has been trying to persuade armed men to disarm, resisting calls from Israel and the international community for a crackdown. But many of the militants, who have become virtual rulers of the Palestinian cities during the last four years of violence, are reluctant to give up their power.
The militant groups have undermined recent attempts by Abbas to impose control, twice firing on Palestinian officials and police officers. On Friday, five Palestinians were wounded when militants opened fire on a Palestinian police station in Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, after police apparently beat one of their members.
Earlier this week, tensions between the Palestinian Authority and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a larger militant group linked to Abbas' Fatah Party, descended into gunfire in the nearby town of Jenin.
Abbas said the two sides must move ahead with transferring control of the cities.
"The Israelis have stopped the talks and we call on them to resume the dialogue as soon as possible," Abbas said.
Israeli officials said Abbas must find the bombing conspirators before talks resume.
"We are waiting to hear the results of the (Palestinian) investigation into the bombing that came from the very same city they want us to hand over," said Sharon spokesman Assaf Shariv.
The bomber came from a village near Tulkarem, one of the first places slated for transfer.
"We are waiting to see what he (Abbas) will do, so far it is not a lot," Shariv said.
Abbas said the Palestinians continued to investigate the attack "despite the fact it was orchestrated from places which we have no responsibility" for.
Islamic Jihad leaders claimed responsibility for the Tel Aviv bombing but blamed the attack on a local rogue cell working on orders from the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and not from Islamic Jihad leaders in the Palestinian areas. Israel and the United States said the bombing was planned in Syria.
Abbas said he had no information linking Syria to the attack.