Israeli and Palestinian officials began laying the groundwork for a summit yesterday despite widespread protests over the threat by the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to take unilateral action to separate their communities.
Israeli officials said they intended to renew contact with the Palestinians as early as tomorrow to arrange a summit between their respective prime ministers, Mr Sharon and Ahmed Qureia.
The Palestinians reacted with wounded pride to Mr Sharon's threat on Thursday of unilateral action if Mr Qureia did not fulfill his commitments under the international "road map" and crack down on the militias. Ultimatums, they said, were not the way to achieve peace. They were particularly incensed by his promise to speed up construction of the West Bank security barrier. But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said yesterday: "We are ready to resume the preparatory meetings. If Mr Sharon accepts his obligations under the road map, it can be done."
Mr Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, insisted that the Prime Minister would "spare no effort" to restart negotiations. As part of the bait, he said Israel was offering to withdraw its troops from four West Bank cities, Ramallah, Hebron, Tulkarm and Qalqiliya, as well as relax travel restrictions on Palestinian workers and business people. But the Palestinians had to come up with concrete plans in return. "We want to hand over to the Palestinian security forces," he explained. "We're not going to let the terrorist organisations take control."
Israel is pinning its hopes on Egypt, whose Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher, is due in Jerusalem before Christmas. Mr Gissin said: "We hope the Egyptians will give the Palestinians a push towards a ceasefire." They failed two weeks ago to persuade Palestinian radicals to halt attacks on settlers and soldiers, although they were ready to stop suicide bombings inside Israel proper.
Mr Erekat reiterated the mainstream leadership's determination to achieve a truce. He expected Egypt to invite the rivals back to Cairo soon.
The Bush administration warned Mr Sharon against taking unilateral moves. But yesterday the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said it was pleased with the "overall speech".
The most vehement response to Mr Sharon's policy statement, in which he said for the first time that he would evacuate some West Bank and Gaza settlements, came from the nationalist right. The hard-line National Union and National Religious Party accused the Prime Minister of "giving a prize to terror," but they were in no hurry to leave the ruling coalition. Effie Eitam, the Transport Minister, said they would judge Mr Sharon on deeds, not words. They doubted he would follow through.
The settlers' council warned: "Destroying settlements and expelling Jews from their homes will only increase the murderers' appetites." Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leader of the fringe Kach movement, branded Mr Sharon a "traitor", the kind of rhetoric that preceded the assassination of an earlier prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995.
Settler leaders pledged to resist evacuation by all means short of violence.
¿ The International Court of Justice in The Hague will hold hearings in February on the legal consequences of the building of the security barrier in the West Bank, the court said yesterday.