Israelis, Palestinians trade insults

Mutual recriminations by leaders are seen as largely political posturing


JERUSALEM - Palestinian officials accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday of trying to sabotage their talks in Washington with a speech on Thursday in which he called the Palestinian Authority "a gang of corrupt terrorists and assassins."

Lashing back, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, called Sharon's government "a coalition of terror and a gang of killers."

"He wanted to intimidate the Americans and to warn them against reaching any agreement with the Palestinian delegation by describing the Palestinian Authority officials as people against peace," Abdel Rahman said. "If we are like that, why are we in the States, now exerting every possible effort to reach a way out?"

A delegation named by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - with whom President Bush says he will not deal - met Thursday with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

At the same time, Sharon went on national television with a speech that his advisers said was meant to prepare Israel for a long struggle.

"We can't hold talks with the gang of terrorists that is the Palestinian Authority," Sharon said. "Rooting them out is the only way to reach peace."

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a close adviser to Arafat, said Sharon's "declarations hamper international efforts to come back to the political process."

"Sharon's declarations are suitable to most Israeli officials who are war criminals and who must face international justice and be tried for the crimes they perpetrated against our people," Abu Rudeineh said Thursday.

Sharon's speech, Israeli political commentators said, was also meant to enhance his popularity, which has fallen recently.

Through the spring, Sharon was riding high in opinion polls, mainly because of his tough actions against the Palestinians, including the military incursion into West Bank areas ceded to Palestinian control under the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995.

But polls published yesterday in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot were headlined "Sharon Does Not Know How to Get Rid of Terrorism."

The numbers were grim. Does Sharon know how to eliminate the attacks? Yes, 36 percent; no, 60 percent. Since the Sharon government took office, who has been winning? Israel 30 percent; Palestinians 33 percent; neither, 30 percent. How long will the attacks last? A year, 28 percent; two years or more, 53 percent. Will attacks diminish? Diminish, 16 percent; increase, 67 percent.

"We are condemned to live with the terror attacks for years to come," Sever Plotzker wrote in the newspaper, summing up the poll of Israelis. "Condemned to bleed and fear."

The mutual recriminations continued, too, over a breakdown in talks this week about a possible security plan to ease pressure on the Palestinians, whose economy and very lives have been disrupted by the Israeli takeover of the West Bank.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer offered what he calls the "Gaza first" plan, in which Palestinians would begin by taking responsibility for stopping attackers from entering Israeli by way of the Gaza Strip, the narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean that was largely under Palestinian control under the Oslo accords.

But the Palestinians accuse the Israelis of reneging on an offer to extend the trial to a West Bank city, probably Bethlehem, which has been quiet.

Much of the wrangling is regarded as political posturing on both sides. Any such initiative would face internal opposition among the fragmented leadership on both sides.

That is particularly true of the Palestinians. Arafat's decision to have his aides meet with the Israelis this week - an apparent effort to reclaim his diminishing relevance - is being criticized not only by the militants in groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad but also by his own base in Al Fatah.

The elements of a security plan have been endlessly rehashed, including the possibility of CIA training of Palestinian security units or participation by intelligence agencies of Egypt and Jordan, both frowned on by human rights organizations.

The difficulty with any such plan would be that it would require the Palestinians to be, in effect, the guarantors of Israel's security - in the present emotional climate, an unlikely role.

Yesterday was what is now regarded as relatively quiet here, with only one death, that of a 40-year-old Palestinian, Husni Damiri, shot by the Israeli army in the Tulkarm refugee camp.

As usual, accounts varied. Palestinians said he had been standing in his doorway when the Israelis imposed a curfew. The Israeli army said soldiers were shooting at a group of armed men when he was hit.

Israeli newspapers have been filled for days with speculation that President Saddam Hussein of Iraq might supply Palestinian militants with biological weapons, and there have been articles about whether there is a need for smallpox vaccine.

There were also warnings that if the United States should attack Iraq, gas masks from the Persian Gulf war of 1991 would be obsolete.

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