- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

JERUSALEM Despite a decline in Middle East violence, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called off long-awaited truce talks yesterday and said Yasser Arafat must bring a complete halt to Palestinian attacks before any discussions could begin.
Angry Palestinians called the move "irresponsible," saying it undermined efforts by the United States and other foreign governments to calm tensions in a region wracked by a year of fighting.
Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian leader, declared a cease-fire on Tuesday, and Israel immediately announced a halt to offensive military operations. Since then, one Palestinian and one Israeli have been killed. The sides have exchanged fire on several occasions, and Palestinian militants have fired mortars in the Gaza Strip, but the level of violence has dropped.
However, Mr. Sharon is insisting on a full 48 hours without any unrest.
"These meetings can take place once there will be full cessation of terror and hostilities," he said in an interview with the Fox News Channel. "We did not ask too much."
But under intense international pressure, the Israeli prime minister late yesterday appeared to retreat somewhat, pledging that a meeting between Mr. Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres would take place as soon as his deadline was met.
"The Peres-Arafat meeting will take place, as I promised, so long as calm is maintained," Mr. Sharon told a group of Israeli teachers in the town of Latrun yesterday.
Mr. Arafat and Mr. Peres have been trying to arrange a meeting for a month, and had planned to meet yesterday. But Mr. Sharon called off the meeting, increasing friction between the hard-line Mr. Sharon and the dovish Mr. Peres, who has pushed for a series of talks with Mr. Arafat.
Mr. Peres skipped yesterday's Israeli Cabinet session, apparently to protest the cancellation of his meeting with Mr. Arafat, Israeli media reported.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday he had spoken with Mr. Sharon and to Mr. Arafat over the weekend in a bid to keep the peace process momentum alive.
Mr. Powell said Mr. Sharon had "confirmed to me that he is interested in having talks," despite his decision to cancel the meeting.
"He is still committed to those talks, and I hope that they will take place in the near future," Mr. Powell said.
Israeli press reports said Mr. Peres was considering resigning his post, a move that could threaten the stability of Mr. Sharon's government.
Mr. Sharon's Cabinet appeared divided on whether Mr. Arafat had done enough to end the violence by Palestinians.
Cabinet secretary Gideon Saar said Mr. Sharon felt a high-level meeting with Mr. Arafat was not appropriate while any Palestinian violence continued, saying it would "give legitimacy to certain types of terror."
Mr. Saar said the Palestinians had arrested but released Atef Abayyat, a leader of the Tanzim militia, which claimed responsibility for a shooting on Thursday that killed an Israeli woman and wounded her husband.
Israel is demanding Mr. Abayyat's re-arrest as well as other "meaningful steps against violence," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.
Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Yitzhak criticized Mr. Sharon's decision, saying, "We must understand that Yasser Arafat now looks like a seeker of peace and we look bad."
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo called on the United States, Russia and the European Union to pressure Mr. Sharon's government to hold talks. "This is the behavior of a gang, not a responsible government," he said of Israel's cancellation.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, the Bush administration has been urging both sides to halt violence, a step seen as vital for U.S. efforts to enlist Arab nations in a coalition against international terror.
In another development, a Jerusalem court issued an extradition request for Marwan Barghouti, an outspoken Palestinian leader in the West Bank. Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority gave no immediate response. Mr. Barghouti's fiery calls for resistance against Israel have won him supporters among many Palestinian youths. Israel said he was responsible for two shooting attacks, one that killed a Greek monk and another that seriously wounded an Israeli.

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