Israel could deport or arrest Palestinian President Yasser Arafat if he holds up his prime minister's efforts to implement a U.S.-backed "Road Map" to Middle East peace, Israeli diplomatic sources said Saturday.
"Israel conveyed to Washington that if Arafat continues to undermine Abu Mazen, we will reconsider his location and status," a source said, using Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's nom de guerre. "By status we mean immunity."
Abbas, a moderate and reformer, became prime minister earlier this year following pressure from the United States, which has sidelined Arafat, accusing him of fomenting violence in a 33-month-old Palestinian uprising. He denies it.
Palestinian officials say Arafat is trying to weaken Abbas, viewing him as too soft on Israel when it comes to implementing reciprocal measures required by the road map en route to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005.
On June 29, Abbas coaxed a temporary truce out of militant groups spearheading the uprising. Israeli troops withdrew from the West Bank city of Bethlehem and areas of Gaza.
But tensions still simmer over 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Israel has said several hundred "minor offenders" could be freed -- not enough to satisfy Palestinians who view the release of prisoners as key in any peace process.
Abbas spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair by telephone Saturday and asked him to pressure Israel to release prisoners, a senior Palestinian official said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to meet Blair in London Monday and push for Arafat's deeper isolation.
Palestinian officials say Abbas's credibility is at stake over his failure to win concessions from Sharon. "Sharon is working on obstructing the road map," Arafat told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he has been blockaded by Israel after waves of suicide bombings last year.
Israeli officials have in the past said deporting, arresting or even killing ex-guerrilla leader Arafat were viable options.
FATAH ELECTIONS MOOTED
A top Palestinian official said the Arafat-Abbas fracas could be solved with a shakeup of the Fatah national movement at whose helm both men have stood for decades.
The Palestinian cabinet called on the international community to continue dealing with Arafat and said it would pursue prisoner releases.
Though not part of the road map, the issue is likely to be raised during Sharon's visit to Washington, which an Israeli official said was expected in the last week of July.
In the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, 45 prisoners' children aged 10 to 15 held a one-day hunger strike to pressure Abbas to win their parents' release.
Palestinians also seek further Israeli withdrawals. Sharon has demanded the dismantling of militant groups first, but a top Palestinian official said no crackdown was needed.
"Until now we have done 90 percent of the work through internal dialogue. We are pursuing the other 10 percent and will convince them (militants) of the value of our vision," Minister for Security Affairs Mohammed Dahlan said.
Syria said Saturday it was willing to restart negotiations with Israel, but rejected the Jewish state's demand for talks without preconditions. Syria wants Israel to return the Golan Heights, captured during the 1967 Middle East war.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Joseph Logan)