Cease-fire at risk as Mideast truce talks canceled

Israel's government under pressure as Sharon calls off Arafat meeting

September 24, 2001|By Peter Hermann | By Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A flurry of diplomatic efforts to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stalled yesterday when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called off truce talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. His decision was a rebuff to the United States and endangered Israel's coalition government.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who advocates meeting with Arafat, boycotted yesterday's cabinet meeting and threatened "severe consequences" for the unity government that he joined six months ago.

The cancellation ordered by Sharon -- who said that too much violence was occurring to reward the Palestinians with high-level talks -- threatened to end a shaky cease-fire agreed to by both sides last week.

It could also hurt the United States' efforts to win support from Arab nations for a war against terrorism.

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have lobbied Sharon, Peres and Arafat since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to at least scale back the conflict and meet.

Powell said on ABC's This Week yesterday that the United States is "working hard to see if we can get Mr. Arafat and Mr. Peres to have a meeting in the very near future." Sources here have said American officials were angry that the talks have yet to be held.

Yesterday ended with the government Sharon cobbled together in March in danger of collapse. The fight over the Peres-Arafat meeting threatened Sharon from both ends of the political spectrum.

Peres and the left-of-center Labor Party threatened to quit the government unless a meeting was held with Arafat, but the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party threatened to resign if the meeting went forward.

Labor Party ministers talked Peres out of immediately quitting or taking a leave of absence and are scheduled to meet today with Sharon to discuss the crisis. Peres will not be at the meeting.

In a blunt statement issued yesterday, Peres accused Sharon of lacking a vision for a peaceful future and said Israel was obligated to cooperate with its strongest ally, the United States, which he said was now "under attack."

"The United States is not seeking territorial concessions of Israel, nor is it asking us to give up our right of self-defense," Peres said. "It is only asking Israel to change the atmosphere here before it sends its sons into battle."

Palestinian officials, who had hoped the meeting would prompt Israel to ease travel restrictions and its military presence, lashed out at Sharon's veto and complained that Peres had lost credibility to speak for the government.

"This is a gang, not a responsible government of a state," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said in a statement. "If Peres asks for a meeting next time, we'll have to ask him -- who do you represent?"

Sa'eb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator who met with Peres on Saturday night to prepare for a meeting with Arafat, said talks could bring calm to scattered pockets of violence where Arafat's security forces are having trouble enforcing the cease-fire.

"I think it's a very bad sign," Erekat said in an interview yesterday. "Sharon is turning down the hand of the international community. The purpose of the meeting is to sustain the cease-fire. This can only be done through the meeting."

In another move likely to increase tensions, Israel's Justice Ministry requested yesterday that the Palestinian Authority extradite a key aide to Arafat, Marwan Barghouti. Israel alleged that he was connected to several recent terror attacks.

Barghouti has denied any connection to the violence but has publicly supported the Palestinian uprising and its violent methods as legitimate ways of creating an independent Palestinian state.

Violence has dropped substantially in the past several days -- enough for Peres to press for the talks, but not enough for Sharon, who has repeatedly said there has to be "complete quiet" before he engages the Palestinians in talks.

Peres has been trying to meet with Arafat for two weeks, but each scheduled get-together has either been delayed by more violence or canceled by Sharon. The hoped-for session yesterday was to have been followed by a meeting in Turkey and a third in New York.

Peres had threatened to quit the coalition government before. But now the Labor Party is in serious disarray. Elections to choose a party leader several weeks ago ended without a declared winner, and the process is bogged down in a dispute over ballot box-stuffing that has yet to be resolved.

If Peres leaves Sharon's government, he would be bowing out of politics. "He doesn't have a party to lead," said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and an expert on the Labor Party. "Peres is a captive of Sharon."

An American official said last week that should the cease-fire fail, diplomatic efforts would intensify to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from distracting Washington from its war on terrorism.

The French and British foreign ministers are expected this week to hold separate talks with Sharon, Peres and Arafat in an attempt to renew negotiations.

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