Mideast talks fail to yield cease-fire

Dialogue considered good sign after attack

March 21, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli and Palestinian security officials met for three hours last night, but reportedly failed to secure a cease-fire on a day marred by a suicide bombing on a bus in northern Israel that killed seven passengers.

Both sides had predicted that the meeting, arranged by U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni, would lead to a resolution to stop the fighting and would become an impetus for political talks to bring the 18-month conflict to a close.

There was no immediate word on what transpired during the talks or whether any progress had been made. Israel's government radio reported that the meeting ended uneventfully, and American officials did not respond to inquiries early today.

The talks were held at U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer's home in a Tel Aviv suburb. It was the second time the two sides had met since Zinni arrived last week, and more meetings are scheduled in the coming days.

Last night's problems underscored the difficulties of reaching a settlement when tensions are high. Yesterday morning's attack aboard the commuter bus - in which three civilians and four soldiers were killed - strained fractured relations.

By nightfall, the fact that the cease-fire meeting was held at all and that Israeli leaders had not launched a military reprisal for the bus attack was considered a positive development. It also demonstrated Zinni's determination not to let terror groups dictate the peace process.

But it won't be easy to keep cease-fire talks on track if attacks continue. Israel at some point will feel compelled to respond militarily, continuing the cycle of revenge that spirals to deadlier heights at virtually every turn.

Hours after the 7 a.m. bus attack, for which the radical group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, Zinni sped to the West Bank city of Ramallah to talk with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has pledged to crack down on extremist groups.

Shortly thereafter, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning the bombing.

"World public opinion, which stood beside the Palestinians against the Israeli offensive against Palestinian civilians, will never accept Palestinians attacking civilians within Israel," the statement said, "even though the Israeli side continues with its blockades and assassinations against civilians."

The statement was stronger than others issued under similar circumstances in the past, but fell short of a U.S. demand on Tuesday that Arafat personally and forcefully order his people to stop the violence. And it limited its criticism to attacks within Israel, not those committed against Jewish settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Islamic Jihad opposes any peace agreements, and yesterday's attack was viewed as an attempt to sabotage the cease-fire talks. It came a day after Vice President Dick Cheney promised to meet Arafat next week if the Palestinian leader reins in the terror groups.

U.S. officials played down reports in Israel's media yesterday that the meeting could take place in Cairo as early as Monday. They said any meeting is up to Zinni, based on Arafat's ability to quell terror attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the bus bombing proves that Arafat "has not yet taken any steps, has not handed down any orders, has not moved away from his policy of terror. This is, of course, something that we view as very grave."

Sharon met yesterday with the heads of his intelligence agencies, who advised him that the Palestinians want to continue using violence to achieve their goal of a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But left-of-center Labor Party officials warned yesterday not to let militant groups disrupt a cease-fire agreement and urged Sharon to restrain his army.

"After a lethal year and a half, we have seen that it won't end with force alone, and therefore we must go to something else," said Cabinet Minister Matan Vilnai. "We now have an additional try at reaching that something else, but it can be torpedoed with ease. Two, three crazy suicide terrorists can torpedo entire historic overtures."

Yesterday's bombing occurred on a busy east-west highway near the Arab-Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, about 50 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. Witnesses said a bearded man chewing gum boarded, argued with the driver about the fare and then sat in a middle seat.

He detonated his bomb, apparently strapped to his waist and hidden under a jacket, about 200 yards from the bus stop. The bus, on its way from Tel Aviv to Nazareth, was full of Israeli soldiers, Jewish workers and Arab-Israeli laborers heading to military bases or to work.

It was the third attack on that bus route, No. 823, in four months, and it left the pink-and-white vehicle a mangled mass of metal, nearly split down the middle. Seven people and the bomber were killed, and 30 were injured.

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