Tuesday, 2 January 2001

Arafat agrees to new round of peace talks with Clinton

Car bomb injures 30 in Israeli town as fighting escalates in West Bank, Gaza

The Globe and Mail,
Tuesday, January 2, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed last night to visit Washington for what could be a decisive meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton on the future of the Middle East peace process, as a bomb attack in Israel and fighting throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip raised tension on the ground.

The two men reportedly held a lengthy telephone conversation late yesterday about Mr. Clinton's proposals for renewing peace talks with Israel. Direct talks have been stalled since July's failed summit at Camp David, Md., and almost buried by the fighting of the past three months. More than 350 people have been killed, most of them Palestinians, and six more died yesterday.

Mr. Clinton needs an answer soon if he is to realize his dream of clinching a peace deal before he leaves the White House later this month. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has already accepted the U.S. proposals as a basis for new talks, but Mr. Arafat originally said he could not give a final answer until after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled for Thursday.

Mr. Arafat's plans to meet Mr. Clinton this afternoon raised hopes that a breakthrough might still be possible, despite yesterday's violence and rhetoric. Earlier, though, a senior Palestinian official said Mr. Arafat will reject the U.S. proposals.

"The Palestinian leadership has decided to respond in the negative to the American proposals," said Sakher Habash, an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, at a rally in Ramallah to mark the 36th anniversary of the Fatah movement's first terror attack against Israel. "The Palestinians will continue with their struggle until independence."

And Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who spoke to Mr. Arafat yesterday, said there were "no indications" a deal would be sealed before Mr. Clinton's term ends.

Hours before Mr. Clinton and Mr. Arafat spoke, a large car bomb exploded in the centre of the busy Israeli seaside resort of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.

One person was seriously injured and about 30 more wounded by shrapnel when the booby-trapped vehicle exploded as a crowded rush-hour bus was passing on Netanya's main thoroughfare.

"There were three explosions, one after the other," said Mickey Ratz, who witnessed the explosion. "I was only 20 metres away. I saw a car on fire. There was shattered glass all over the place. I saw a lot of blood."

Israeli helicopters hovered over the city trying to locate a car that was seen fleeing the scene at high speed just before the attack, and police said the injured man might be the bomber.

Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, denied carrying out the attack. But just yesterday morning, senior Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantissi was quoted in a Persian Gulf newspaper threatening more attacks on Israel.

"Hamas has stepped up its operations and has carried out bomb attacks from afar to protect the lives of its fighters," said Mr. Rantissi, whom Mr. Arafat released from a Gaza jail last week. "We might be forced to use the old [suicide attack] methods if that is the only way to cause losses to the enemy."

Israeli security officials have warned of a possible increase in Hamas attacks in the run-up to the election for prime minister planned for Feb. 6. A wave of suicide bombings during the 1996 election campaign left nearly 100 Israelis dead and swept right-wing firebrand Benjamin Netanyahu to office in a surprise victory over peace champion Shimon Peres.

"After this attack, we can't hold back any longer," Israeli cabinet minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday. "That's it -- we have run out of patience. Now we need a more immediate and firm response. Mr. Arafat is responsible for everything that is happening and he will have to suffer the consequences. We can't continue with negotiations with the Palestinians as long as these attacks continue."

But Palestinian cabinet secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said Israel was also to blame.

"The latest escalation is a direct result of the events that started three months ago," he said. "We have warned and cautioned against such an escalation. The only way to escape the cycle of violence and attacks is by returning to the negotiating table and reaching an agreement on the basis of UN resolutions, which means a full withdrawal from the [Israeli-occupied] territories."

Meanwhile, six Palestinians died yesterday after clashes with Israeli troops. Among them was 10-year-old Muad Abu Adwan, who died of wounds suffered Sunday in crossfire in the West Bank town of Hebron, where Palestinians shot at Israeli houses throughout the night and Israeli soldiers and settlers returned fire.

Jewish settlers, angered by Sunday's slaying of hard-line Rabbi Binyamin Kahane, blocked roads to West Bank Arab villages. The resurgent violence has increased pressure on Mr. Barak, who trails badly in polls with slightly more than a month before an election in which he has staked his job on reaching a deal with the Palestinians.

Yesterday, Mr. Netanyahu threw his weight behind the candidacy of Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

And Mr. Barak renewed a threat of "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians unless a deal is reached. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said that a security fence was already being prepared along those border stretches that both sides seem to agree on.

The Prime Minister told army radio that if the talks do not resume, Israel will consider establishing its permanent borders without Palestinian input.

"We must part from the Palestinians. It is one of our highest priorities to do so in an agreement, but we will have to prepare to do so without an agreement if it becomes clear that the Palestinians are not interested in an agreement."

Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein, meanwhile, warned Mr. Barak against rushing into any agreement before the election.

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