RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned to the center of Mideast peace efforts Saturday, spearheading a hectic day of negotiations aimed at halting Israeli-Palestinian violence, and steering the course for renewed peace talks between the two sides.
With Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas away in Jordan recovering from cataract surgery, Arafat rankled Israeli and some U.S. officials by largely shaping the first meeting Saturday between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since the Aqaba peace summit early this month.
He crafted the bulk of a plan that Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan presented to Israeli officials late Saturday for taking over security control of the embattled northern Gaza Strip. The meeting between Dahlan and Israeli defense commanders lasted into the early morning, but both sides said before the talks that they hoped to find some common ground for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.
On Friday, Israeli leaders offered to hand over security in parts of Gaza, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a three-day cease-fire with militant groups.
Arafat also met Saturday with Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, "giving them instructions" for ending attacks against Israelis in the event that Israel guarantees an end to the assassination attempts on Hamas leaders that contributed to escalated Mideast violence last week.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials said it was clear that Arafat had decided the timing was right to reassert his authority since the road map is in tatters and the death toll is near 60.
On Wednesday, after a suicide bomber killed 17 on a bus in downtown Jerusalem, Arafat delivered his first televised address since the beginning of the peace process two months ago. He called for an end to violence on both sides. On Friday, Arafat held emergency meetings with Dahlan, giving the go-ahead for taking over security in Gaza, and paving the way for Saturday's Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Palestinian Gen. Sakhar Habsh, a close advisor to Arafat and a member of the ruling Fatah central committee, said Arafat's plan is not to have Dahlan take over security from Israel in Gaza in order to begin a crackdown there on militants.
"Arafat cannot tell Hamas what to do. Nobody can tell anybody what to do over here, right now," Habsh said. "All Arafat can do is try to get rid of the Israeli attacks and give the Palestinian people some hope."
For its part, Hamas publicly rejected any plans for a cease-fire Saturday. Israeli troops shot and killed a 19-year-old Palestinian and wounded three others in the West Bank town of Nablus on Saturday night when the teens began throwing rocks at an Israeli tank.
Palestinian officials said Arafat's new involvement is aimed first and foremost at self-preservation.
"He's always been the ultimate one driving things, and he wants to stay driving things," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian minister of labor.
Khatib said that while Arafat is bitter from having been sidelined by U.S. pressure behind the road map, he still has an enduring self-interest in seeing the roadmap proceed since the fate of the unpopular Palestinian Authority largely is tied to the current peace process.
If the talks collapse, officials warn, Hamas will only get more popular, and Arafat's government will lose support. The Palestinian Authority currently has a 20-percent approval rate with Palestinians.
"The peace process has a chance as long as we still have the government of Abbas. And Arafat's role is secured as long as we have the peace process," Khatib said. "Without it, who knows."
Israeli leaders last month renewed a long-standing debate over forcing Arafat into exile, but unlike in the past, they have stopped short of blaming him directly for recent attacks.
With Arafat inserting himself as mediator on Saturday, however, Israeli officials were more forceful about saying that Arafat should stay out of the way.
"He threatens to become problematic, as always," said Israeli government spokesman Jonathan Peled. "We are trying to ignore him for now, but we will see what he does. It's clear he's trying to take advantage while Abbas is away and recovering."
White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis reiterated the Bush administration's opposition to Arafat's involvement on Saturday.
"We've made our views known on Chairman Arafat, and we're working with Prime Minister Abbas, who is committed to fighting terrorism and to the road map," she said.
A day earlier, though, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Arafat, like everyone else, must focus on ways to find peace and stop militant groups.
Arafat advisor Bassam abu Sharif said the relationship between Arafat and the United States is increasingly complicated in the peace process.
"I think the U.S. knows that when it is talking to the government of Abbas, they are talking to representatives of Arafat. He's still the elected president."
Abu Sharif asserted that the United States has been sending "indirect messages" to Arafat, urging his renewed support since last week's spike in violence. Representatives from the European Union also have contacted Arafat to control militant groups, he said.
"The U.S. can't come out and say he's part of the process, but he is."
Sunday, Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf and his initial team of 10 Mideast peace monitors will begin meetings in Jerusalem.
Peled said Wolf plans to spend three days with Israeli officials and two days with Palestinians in a fact-finding mission. He will then begin formulating plans for implementing and monitoring the road map.
Abu Sharif said that Saturday night's meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officials were crucial to getting Wolf's visit off to a good start.
"When Wolf arrives, there's supposed to be a peace process left to monitor," he said. "The Americans have made clear that Wolf's not here to end the fight."
Contributing: Frank Davies, Knight Ridder Newspapers