High-level talks on again in Mideast Israelis, Palestinians to meet in small teams to break deadlock

Terrorist attack averted

July 20, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian officials, trying to break a 16-month deadlock in Middle East peace negotiations, set up "small teams" to discuss key issues last night.

In Jerusalem, police investigated an aborted terrorist attack that occurred in a popular downtown area hours earlier.

The meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Mahmoud Abbas, top aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was the first high-level contact between the sides since talks broke down in March 1997 after Israel broke ground on a housing development in Arab East Jerusalem.

While no breakthrough was achieved in the Tel Aviv negotiations, both sides agreed to keep talking and to meet again today.

"We have discussed all the outstanding issues, dealt with them from all their aspects and we will follow up," Abbas said after 3 1/2 hours of talks last night at a Tel Aviv hotel.

The sides met at the urging of the United States to work out differences that have stalled the return of West Bank land to the Palestinians. Israel has delayed further troop withdrawals from land occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, citing security concerns and what it sees as a lax effort by the Palestinians to combat terrorism.

"We decided in the coming days to concentrate on the main issues and to look for solutions to bridge the gaps with the idea of moving forward the agreements between the sides," Mordechai said.

Mordechai said the delegations agreed to set up small teams to discuss the issues that have blocked the overdue Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank.

Terrorist attack averted

It has been 10 months since a major terrorist attack occurred in Israel. But yesterday's incident took place within blocks of a 1997 bombing at a popular outdoor Jerusalem market; 16 people died July 30 in that attack at the Mahane Yehuda market in which two suicide bombers ignited explosives within seconds of each other.

In yesterday's incident, a white van traveling along Jaffa Road, a prime commercial and tourist area of West Jerusalem, caught fire about 8: 30 a.m., police said.

An off-duty police officer and a bus driver rescued the trapped driver, who was badly burned, according to police. Police bomb experts were called to the scene. They found 160 gallons of gasoline inside the van, three bombs and dozens of nails, which have been used before to pack suicide bombs, according to police.

"A terrible tragedy was averted," Jerusalem police Chief Yair Yitzhaki said in an interview with Israel television.

Yitzhaki said the blast would have been felt for 80 meters if the van had exploded.

Suspect previously jailed

No one but the van's driver was injured in yesterday's incident. The driver was hospitalized and under police guard last night. Police identified him only as a 30-year-old Palestinian, a father of two who lives in an occupied area of the West Bank. They said the suspect had been jailed previously for being a member of a "hostile organization."

Israel television reported that the man's family operates a construction firm. His family denied that he had any connection to the military wing of Hamas, an Islamic group that opposes the Oslo peace accords Arafat signed with Israel in 1993. Hamas has been responsible for most of the terrorist attacks of the past two years.

During a meeting with liberal Jewish activists yesterday, Arafat denounced the foiled terrorist attack, according to Israel television.

Security concerns

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a morning news conference that the Jaffa Road incident underscored Israel's concerns about security, an issue that has dogged the beleaguered peace process for the past two years. "You can understand why we insist the Palestinians carry out their responsibility, first of all in fighting terrorism and our concern over security."

Netanyahu, who was voted into office on a pledge to bring peace with security, has conditioned the handing over of additional land to the Palestinian authority on the Palestinians waging a tough battle against terrorist organizations in their midst.

The prime minister said he had given Israel's defense minister his full support in carrying out last night's talks. He said he would be willing to meet with Arafat to narrow their differences and move the process forward.

"I call on the Palestinian authority to engage with us continually, day and night, in negotiations, including at the highest levels," he said.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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