JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ehud Barak today backed away from a deadline for the Palestinians to stop violence that continued to rage in Israel and the West Bank and agreed to attend a U.S.- hosted summit if one was called, his spokesman said.
As soon as the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur ended at sunset yesterday, the West Bank, which had been relatively calm, flared into violence, with a gunbattle erupting in Hebron and Jewish settlers throwing stones at Palestinian homes around Nablus.
In Tel Aviv, hundreds of Jews, some chanting “Death to the Arabs,” descended into the streets, smashing car windows, while in other Israeli towns, Jews and Arabs attacked each other in perhaps the worst civil strife in years.
Mr. Barak met with his Cabinet in an emergency session as the initial Monday night time limit on his ultimatum to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat wound down. The Israeli leader had demanded Mr. Arafat stop the violence or face the end of the peace process and a tougher Israeli military response.
Just before the session, Mr. Barak spoke by phone to President Clinton, who also spoke with Mr. Arafat amid a flurry of diplomatic activity trying to cobble together a summit.
After the meeting ended before dawn today, Cabinet Secretary Isaac Herzog said in a statement that the decision to roll back the deadline was taken in part because of international pressure. The Cabinet did not announce a new deadline.
“There are many requests from many world leaders to the prime minister and the government to give the peace process a chance,” Mr. Herzog said, adding, “Negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on a final peace agreement will not continue until the violence stops. Other issues between Israel and the Palestinians will be dealt with on merit.”
Government spokesman Nachman Shai said, “We will act to restore calm to the extent that it depends on us, while also giving Yasser Arafat a certain additional time to do what he needs to do.”
He said Israel was ready to go to a summit if Washington convened one. “If the U.S. president invites, it isn’t pleasant to say no.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Palestinian leader to the Israeli decision. Mr. Arafat has said he would only consider a resumption of peace talks once Israel agrees to the formation of an international commission of inquiry into the 12 days of violence that have killed 88 persons, most Palestinians.
Mr. Clinton was not the only world leader trying hard to get Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak to talk. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov were also shuttling in the region.
Before convening his Cabinet, Mr. Barak expressed doubt about whether the Palestinian leader was ready to resume peace negotiations and there were signs that Israel was uncertain about a summit.
Mr. Annan met briefly with acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, before holding talks with Mr. Arafat in Gaza. “The action must shift from the street to the bargaining table,” Mr. Annan told Mr. Ben-Ami.
Mr. Arafat had just returned from a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said Mr. Arafat had also taken calls from French, Italian, Turkish and Spanish leaders yesterday.
As a result of the current situation, Mr. Barak planned to widen his fragile coalition in the coming days, according to a government statement issued during the Cabinet meeting. Israeli opposition leaders, including Ariel Sharon of Likud, have been pushing for a national unity government. A Sept. 28 visit by Mr. Sharon to a Jerusalem holy site revered by Muslims and Jews touched off the latest violence.
Mr. Ivanov’s mission was especially focused on the situation along the Lebanese border: a militant Islamic Lebanese guerrilla group had captured three Israeli soldiers on Saturday, an act that Hezbollah guerrillas dedicated to the Palestinians. The Israeli army said in a statement it believes the soldiers are still alive.
Mr. Ivanov was to hold talks with Mr. Ben-Ami today.
Mr. Barak had threatened to respond with force and said he held Lebanon and Syria responsible.
“The priority now is to stop the escalation, refrain from using force and resume the dialogue,” Mr. Ivanov said after meeting with Lebanese leaders.
The European Union yesterday dispatched its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to the region in a bid to negotiate a cease-fire. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, whose country is one of the few to enjoy good relations both with Israelis and Palestinians, called both sides yesterday to urge a break in the fighting, officials in Ankara said.
For President Clinton, trying to prevent the collapse of one of his top foreign policy priorities, the decision on whether to travel to the Middle East, perhaps for a summit in Cairo, could be announced as soon as today, White House aides said.
The idea of re-creating this summer’s failed Camp David summit with Messrs. Clinton, Barak and Arafat is “out there,” Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” yesterday.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard C. Holbrooke, speaking on NBC’s “Today Show,” had strong words yesterday for Mr. Arafat, whom Israeli officials say has failed to restrain the Palestinian demonstrators on the West Bank.
“He may not be able to stop every teen-age rock-thrower, but this thing could be pulled under control if Chairman Arafat wants to do so,” said Mr. Holbrooke, who abstained in a Saturday night Security Council vote on a resolution critical of Israel.
David Sands in Washington and Betsy Pisik in New York contributed to this report.