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Mideast hopes lie in tatters

CRISIS AT PASSOVER: As holy days begin, a deadly suicide bomb rips an Israeli hotel and an Arab peace bid descends into farce

Thursday, March 28, 2002

The Lost City of David

  • Photo Essay

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  • BEIRUT -- The Middle East was thrown into fresh crisis yesterday after an Arab summit fell into a shambles and a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked a religious feast.

    As Jews across Israel prepared for the evening Seder feast to mark the beginning of Passover, the bomber stepped into a crowded hotel dining hall in the Israeli resort of Netanya and triggered a huge explosion.

    At least 19 people died and more than 100 were hurt. An Israeli official called it a "Passover massacre."

    The bombing was claimed by Izzedeen al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, which also runs clinics and kindergartens; and the al-Aqsa Brigades, which is part of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

    U.S. President George W. Bush, whose peace efforts in the region seem to be in tatters, called the attack a "cold-blooded killing" and placed responsibility for averting further conflict on the shoulders of Mr. Arafat. "There are people in the Middle East who would rather kill than have peace," Mr. Bush said in Washington.

    Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking before the attack, stoked fears of a widening conflict by pointing to mounting tensions along the border with Lebanon.

    "We are sitting on a powder keg in northern Israel," he said, referring to the standoff between Israeli forces and the Shia Muslim group Hezbollah, which he accused of stockpiling weapons, including thousands of long-range missiles, supplied by Iran.

    Even before the bombing, an Arab peace initiative was in peril at the 22-member Arab League summit in Beirut. Mr. Arafat, who was supposed to address the summit by satellite link from his West Bank compound, had the plug pulled on him by the Lebanese government hosting the conference.

    That triggered a walkout by the Palestinian delegation, although they were to return today.

    Lebanese officials offered a variety of contradictory explanations for the episode, ranging from the farfetched fear that Mr. Sharon might hijack the video feed and address the summit, to a mundane dispute over speaking order.

    Eventually Mr. Arafat's address was rescheduled for today.

    The confusion further damaged the credibility of a summit already marred by the absence of key regional leaders. Besides Mr. Arafat, who was effectively blocked by Israel from attending, the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Iraq chose to stay home.

    It wasn't supposed to be that way. The international community was banking heavily on the two-day summit to promote a land-for-peace plan advanced by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah.

    The Prince was applauded when he presented his plan to the gathering yesterday, but it was less audacious in its language than European and U.S. diplomats had hoped for even a few days ago.

    The essence of the plan is to offer Israel a thaw in relations with the Arab world in exchange for withdrawing from the territory it conquered in the 1967 war.

    Prince Abdullah told the other leaders that the Arab League should present the United Nations Security Council with a proposal based on "normal relations and the security of Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with noble Jerusalem as its capital, and the return of the refugees."

    In an interview several weeks ago, Prince Abdullah used more conciliatory language, choosing the phrase "full normalization" of relations with Israel. Perhaps more significantly, he also played down the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees with roots in what is now Israel, an issue that could be a deal breaker for Israel.

    At one point in his address, Prince Abdullah said he wished to speak directly to Israelis: "I tell the Israeli people that if their government gives up the policy of force and suppression and accepts genuine peace, we will not hesitate in accepting the Israeli people's right to live in security with the rest of the people in the region."

    A spokesman for Mr. Sharon questioned the meaning of the proposal for normal relations, asking whether it implied acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East, but adding that Israel would be interested in discussing the matter.

    However, another adviser, Danny Ayalon, flatly rejected any right of return for Palestinian refugees as "totally unacceptable."

    Meaningful peace talks are unlikely to occur while the violence continues. U.S. peace envoy Anthony Zinni has been trying to arrange a ceasefire for two weeks, but as yesterday's attack in Netanya demonstrated, he has failed thus far.

    Prince Abdullah may have watered down his peace proposal partly in deference to the more hard-line Arab states, such as Syria, who feel the time is not ripe for peace negotiations.

    He may also have been trying to register his disappointment that Washington failed to persuade Mr. Sharon to allow Mr. Arafat to travel to the summit.

    Mr. Arafat, in an address televised on the Al-Jazeera satellite network, called the Saudi proposal courageous.

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