Israel blocks Palestinian reform meetings

Netanyahu calls activities `sham' coming soon after suicide bombings kill 22

January 07, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV, Israel - During violent times, when is it the right time to talk about peace?

It is not now, Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forcefully said yesterday, a day after two Palestinian suicide bombings in a rundown neighborhood here killed 22 Israelis and foreigners.

Israel decided to prevent Palestinian officials from meeting Thursday in Ramallah on the writing of a new constitution and to bar a second delegation from traveling next week to London for a meeting on government reforms.

Netanyahu said the London meeting with U.S. and European officials would be nothing more than "a sham" by Palestinians who he said supported and encouraged "wanton murders of innocents by terrorist savages."

He reiterated the government's policy that peace is not possible as long as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains in power. "And now we are asked, `Why do you not let this group go to a conference on reform?'" Netanyahu said. "Are you kidding?"

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel's decision proves "they don't fight terror as they claim."

"They fight the Palestinian cause," he said. "We want to discuss how to end this vicious cycle of violence, and the Israeli government wants to fuel the conflict."

Israel's decisions have triggered a spat with Great Britain and raised the question of how Palestinian reformers can bring change if Israel won't let them meet.

The Israeli media editorialized yesterday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has no idea how to get out of this predicament. He has refused to negotiate with the Palestinians until all violence stops, but he cannot use his army to oust Arafat because it would wreck havoc in the Middle East and upend U.S. war plans for Iraq.

"Sharon understands the bind that his government is in," wrote Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth. "It cannot win the conflict by force, it is not prepared to decide to end the conflict by means of negotiations and it does not want to end it by means of genuine separation."

Sharon, Barnea's column said, "is held captive by the status-quo, without a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel."

Yesterday, funerals once again dominated the landscape. By last night, forensics experts had identified 19 of the bodies from the suicide bombings - 13 Israelis and six foreigners. Two were Romanian, and there were one each from Bulgaria, Ghana, China and Ukraine.

The blasts at a bus stop and a nearby pedestrian mall injured more than 100 people, many of them foreign workers who came to Israel for jobs as house cleaners and health workers.

About 20,000 foreigners live in the seedy south Tel Aviv neighborhood near the old central bus station, an area that bombers have targeted three times in the past year. Most of the foreigners, Israeli officials say, are in the country illegally and live packed in tiny apartments above run-down streets illuminated by blinking neon signs advertising bingo halls, bars and brothels.

Netanyahu noted that he visited many workers in a Tel Aviv hospital along with ambassadors from China, Ghana and Romania, and he contrasted the "indiscriminate killings" by Palestinian militants with the "indiscriminate savings of lives" by Israeli doctors.

He showed reporters a video of a Palestinian training camp that showed how children are recruited as suicide bombers who target Israelis. "This is the truth," he said, calling the planned meeting in London "a lie."

Earlier, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a partial transcript of a telephone conversation between Netanyahu and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Typically, parts of such conversations are leaked to the media; releasing verbatim quotes is highly unusual.

According to the transcript, Netanyahu told Straw that after the attack in Tel Aviv, "It cannot be business as usual." He then quoted President Bush's remarks, "that leaders compromised by terror cannot be partners for peace. You in Britain are doing the exact opposite."

Straw, according to the transcript, responded: "No, it is Israel that is doing the opposite. Instead of concentrating on terrorism, it is striking at [Palestinian] delegates."

Netanyahu responded that Arafat was "sending his minions under the cover of reform. Arafat must make his reforms here, not there."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.