- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM Middle East peacemaking plunged into disarray yesterday after the abrupt cancellation of an Israeli-Palestinian summit on a U.S. peace plan and two bomb attacks that claimed the lives of two Israelis and injured another 15.

A bus bomb exploded in Tel Aviv's business district, and a second blast ripped a junction at the edge of the Gaza Strip.

The violence erupted as both Israel and the Palestinians balked at crucial provisions of American peace proposals they were handed last week, drawing a frustrated response from President Clinton.

Mr. Clinton ruled out further talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders until they accepted his basic framework for a peace pact.

"There is no point in our talking further unless both sides accept the parameters I have laid out," Mr. Clinton said in Washington.

President-elect George W. Bush, at a separate appearance in Washington, declined to comment on the latest setback for Mideast peace.

"Our nation must speak with one voice," he told reporters. "Having said that, I will tell you I'm impressed by these efforts to bring the folks together. Obviously, we hope it works."

In response to the explosions, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak closed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, banning Palestinians from entering Israel, according to aide David Zisso.

A closure was imposed shortly after the outbreak of Palestinian rioting three months ago, but recently it was eased to let 16,000 Palestinian workers into Israel.

Still, there remained some hope for the U.S. plan: Two key Arab states Egypt and Saudi Arabia lent guarded support to it, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Palestinians would look closely to the views of "our Arab brothers."

Mr. Arafat still traveled to Cairo, where he held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who spoke by telephone earlier with Mr. Barak.

Following the Arafat-Mubarak meeting, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the Palestinians want an agreement with Israel that covers details and not general ideas, as in the U.S. plan.

"We do not want a declaration of principles, but an accord … covering the details," including those that ensure the territorial unity of Palestinian areas, Mr. Erakat said.

Officials said Mr. Clinton suggested giving the Palestinians a state in 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza and sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods and a disputed holy site in Jerusalem.

In exchange for Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, the Palestinians would curtail their demand for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes in Israel.

Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak had been due to meet with Mr. Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik yesterday to discuss the U.S. plan. But with the Palestinians sharply questioning the U.S. proposals, the Egyptians canceled the summit.

Yesterday's bloodshed followed several days of relative calm on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian lands. The calm ended as a bomb blew up in the back of a bus carrying dozens of passengers along a busy Tel Aviv thoroughfare. Black smoke billowed skyward and panicked pedestrians scattered.

"Suddenly there was an explosion and flames," driver Yigal Reichman told Army Radio. "I stopped the bus and opened the door and people ran out." Hospital officials said 14 persons were hurt.

Hours later, two Israelis were killed and two injured in a powerful blast along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Police sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they were trying to dismantle a roadside bomb.

Mr. Barak vowed to hunt down those responsible for setting the bombs, and said attacks would not "affect our determination … to bring about an end to conflict and bloodshed in the region."

The radical Islamic group Hamas, which has driven home its opposition to a peace accord with deadly bombings, disclaimed any knowledge of the blasts. But it said Israel would suffer such attacks as long as the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, goes on.

Nearly 350 people, most of them Palestinians, have been killed since fighting broke out between Israeli troops and Palestinians in late September.

Meanwhile, both sides confronted the wrenching choices Mr. Clinton has called on them to make in the quest to end their 52-year conflict.

Israeli officials expressed reservations about the American plan, particularly the U.S. call for it to cede sovereignty of a disputed shrine at the heart of the conflict. But they appeared caught by surprise at the harshness of Palestinian criticism of the proposals.

News reports said the Palestinians, in a letter to the Clinton administration a day earlier, had questioned 24 separate provisions. But even dovish Israelis warned Mr. Arafat it was the best offer he was going to get.

According to Israel television's commercial channel, army commander Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz warned the Cabinet on Wednesday that the Clinton proposals would undermine Israel's security and leave the military unable to defend the civilian population from attack.

Even though Israel agreed early Thursday that the American plan laid the groundwork for more talks, Mr. Barak told his Cabinet he would not sign any agreement transferring sovereignty of the Jerusalem holy site to the Palestinians.

For Palestinians, the key sticking point has been the fate of nearly 4 million refugees scattered in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians have always insisted they be allowed to return to homes in Israel. The American plan instead gives them the right to live in the Palestinian state-to-be.

Arafat aide Nabil Shaath suggested the two sides could still seal a peace deal before Mr. Barak faces right-wing rival Ariel Sharon at the polls on Feb. 6.

"That leaves us with some 40 days," he said. "The question is how this time is used."

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