Sunday's revelations of a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in June placed additional hurdles on the road to Annapolis, with some in Israel and within Olmert's own coalition calling for a reassessment of relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, some in the PA said the allegations were an Israeli fabrication designed to scuttle the diplomatic process.
The plot to kill Olmert emerged during a briefing given to the cabinet by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin. According to Diskin, five Fatah men, members of the PA security forces, planned to fire on Olmert's convoy as it was to enter Jericho on June 6. In the end that planned meeting did not take place because of diplomatic considerations, but another meeting was held in Jericho in August.
Olmert, on his way to France and Britain for meetings Sunday, told reporters before he took off that the "Palestinian behavior in this incident causes a great deal of discomfort."
Israel would not be able to ignore the incident, he added. "The unsuitable way in which they dealt with the suspects in the assassination attempt is part of a mode of behavior that needs to change," he said.
At the same time Olmert made clear that he would continue his contacts with the PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and that he would not cancel Israel's participation in the planned Middle East meeting later this year in Annapolis, Maryland.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she raised the issue during talks last week with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, telling the secretary Israel would demand that the road map peace plan be implemented before any agreement with the PA was carried out. The first stage of the road map calls for the PA to uproot the terrorist infrastructure.
According to Diskin, the Shin Bet obtained intelligence on the planned assassination attempt and arrested two suspects. Israel then forwarded the details of the plot to the PA, whose security forces promptly arrested the three remaining members of the group.
All five confessed to their involvement in the plot, Diskin said. However, late last month, to Israel's astonishment, the IDF discovered two of the suspects at a checkpoint near Jericho. Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei was informed of the discovery, and he assured Israel that all the suspects were still in custody. However, on Friday, upon further examination, it became clear that they had indeed been released by low-ranking PA officials.
"It is a very grave matter and especially grave that they are members of the PA security services," a Shin Bet spokesman said.
Fatah officials in Ramallah issued contradictory statements regarding the allegations on Sunday.
Fatah spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman denied the report, claiming Israel had "fabricated" the story to derail the peace process. "The Israeli charges are completely unfounded and are designed to cast doubt about Fatah's efforts to achieve a just and comprehensive settlement," he said. "This is a fabrication with a clear political agenda."
Abdel Rahman called on the media to refrain from reporting the Israeli version. He added that the suspects who had been arrested were not related to Fatah and that the entire case was being investigated by the PA security forces.
However, Gen. Tawfik Tirawi, head of the Fatah-controlled General Intelligence Force in the West Bank, confirmed that his men had arrested a number of suspects for their involvement in the assassination plan.
He did not reveal the identity of the suspects or their political affiliation. "These people are still in detention and they are being interrogated," Tirawi said.
He also warned Israel against using the case as an excuse to hinder efforts by the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal ahead of the Annapolis meeting.
Another Fatah security commander, Majed Faraj, head of the Military Intelligence Force, said he was unaware of any plan to assassinate Olmert. He too claimed that the Israeli charges were aimed at foiling the planned peace conference.
Faraj confirmed that three men had been arrested by the PA security forces, but denied that they had any link to the alleged plot. Although he did not elaborate, he said one of the suspects was released for lack of evidence.
Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, also described the Israeli allegations as a "fabrication." The group denied that its men were part of any plot to assassinate the prime minister.
"Those who were arrested were not planning to assassinate Olmert," it said. "Our arms are capable of reaching Olmert, but we are committed to the legitimacy of President Abbas and we don't want to thwart the [Annapolis] conference."
The group also warned Israel against using the case to target its members and commanders. Addressing Olmert, the Brigades said: "Olmert, don't boast of victory by issuing false charges against the Palestinian resistance. We are very close to you and we are capable of reaching your head if you want to die at the hands of our heroes."
Despite the Palestinian denials, Channel 2 reported Sunday night - citing Israeli security officials - that some of the five Fatah operatives suspected of participation in the plot were meant to guard the prime minister's convoy during the canceled June visit.
Dichter also told the cabinet that Olmert's life had not in real danger since the gunmen planned to use light ammunition, which would not have been able to penetrate the prime minister's car. However, Dichter said, "This was no reason to release the suspects."
PA Agriculture Minister Mahmoud Habash rejected the idea that the Fatah men had planned to assassinate Olmert.
Habash made the remarks during a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Shalom Simhon. The two also spoke of renewing the agricultural trade channel between Israel and Gaza.
Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a key partner in Olmert's coalition, said that the diplomatic process had to be frozen until all details about the plot were clarified.
Ehud Zion Waldoks contributed to this report.