Israeli officials on Sunday said they foiled a recent attempt by Palestinian militants to assassinate Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a trip to the West Bank and warned the plot could hurt prospects for an upcoming U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference
Palestinian officials said Olmert was never in imminent danger and accused Israel of trying to exploit the plot to hinder progress before the summit.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been trying to hammer out a joint document outlining their common vision for a future peace agreement. They hope to present the document at the peace conference, which is expected to take place in Annapolis, Md., in November or December.
But negotiations have made little headway, and Olmert has come under heavy Palestinian pressure to make concessions ahead of the summit.
Palestinians said Israel's decision to disclose the assassination plot, more than three months after it was uncovered, appeared to be aimed at heading off the pressure.
"It clouds the atmosphere of the conference," Olmert said before leaving on a trip to France. " Israel views this with great severity."
Israel has long said peace efforts cannot progress until the Palestinians crack down on militant groups. Israeli officials said they were especially upset that Palestinian security forces released three suspects arrested in the plot, though two of the men were subsequently re-arrested.
The assassination plot was disclosed to the Israeli Cabinet by Yuval Diskin, director of the Shin Bet internal security agency.
According to meeting participants, Diskin said Palestinian gunmen had planned to attack Olmert's convoy as it entered the West Bank town of Jericho on Aug. 6 for a meeting with Abbas. Diskin told the Cabinet the gunmen were linked to Abbas' Fatah movement, said the participants, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
While Abbas oversees official Palestinian security forces, he has little control over extremist armed groups, including those loyal to Fatah, which frequently act counter to his efforts to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians.
Diskin did not say how close the militants were to carrying out the plot, and it was not clear why Olmert was allowed to proceed on his trip if there was a threat to his life.
In Jerusalem, Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad played down the incident, saying Olmert was never seriously threatened. He said three suspects were arrested, and only released after three months of questioning.
"The interrogation did not reveal according to our security services anything that was imminently dangerous," he said. Nonetheless, Palestinian officials said they re-arrested two of the men last week under Israeli pressure.
"We are trying the very best we can to bring law and order to the cities, villages and areas that are under our control," Fayyad said, rejecting Israeli claims of a "revolving door" policy of arresting and releasing militants.
Fayyad was in Jerusalem to meet with a group of Israeli lawmakers. Israeli officials said the meeting was moved from Jericho to Jerusalem because of security concerns.
Palestinian officials accused Israel of exaggerating the seriousness of the incident to divert attention away from the troubled preparations for the upcoming Mideast conference. Hard-line members of Olmert's coalition have threatened to bring down his government if he makes too many concessions to the Palestinians at the summit.
"This is one more attempt to put obstacles in the way to the fall conference," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Abbas.
Olmert and Abbas have held a series of meetings to restart peace efforts and prepare for the conference. The Jericho meeting was the only time they have met on Palestinian soil and was meant as a gesture to boost Abbas' stature with his people.
The Palestinians have said there is no point to holding the conference unless it deals seriously with contentious issues that have hindered past peace talks.
They include final borders, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the status of disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees.
Olmert has said the preparatory document should be much more general. "The meeting is not intended to lead in and of itself to an agreement or to a historic breakthrough," he told the Cabinet Sunday. ( AP )