Plans to restart the Middle East peace process were violently ruptured yesterday when two suicide bombers struck a crowded vegetable market in downtown Jerusalem, killing themselves and at least 11 Israelis and wounding more than 150.
The bombings came on the day Washington's Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, was due in town with new proposals for resuming negotiations, which have been stalled for the past four months over fundamental disagreements on the Oslo accords.
A recent round of diplomatic activity had propelled expectations that the stalemate in negotiations was about to be broken, although many officials tried to cool the optimism since no real progress had actually been made.
The Clinton administration said it was postponing the visit of Mr. Ross until "an appropriate period of mourning" has passed.
After speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Clinton called for a "deepened determination from Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace.
"We must not let the enemies of peace prevail," Mr. Clinton said in a White House press conference. Asked whether he thought Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was responsible for not maintaining a tighter clamp on Islamic militants opposed to the peace process, he said only that the two sides needed to increase joint efforts at fighting terrorism "We can't say whether any action from the Palestinian Authority could have stopped this action, but we do know that there could be increased security cooperation," Clinton said.
But Prime Minister Netanyahu, who received a phone call from Mr. Arafat expressing his condolences, said that apologies were not enough when Israelis were again facing terror in the street.
"We expect not just words of condemnation from the Palestinian Authority, we expect action," Netanyahu said at a press conference after the bombings.
Netanyahu, who was elected on a platform of "peace with security," was to meet with his inner security cabinet last night to assess how Israel would proceed in its relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli leaders recently said high-ranking Palestinian police officials were planning attacks on Israeli citizens, and Netanyahu has accused Arafat of giving a "green light" to terrorists.
The bombing, the most grave act of terror that has taken place since Netanyahu's election just more than a year ago, seemed likely to have a formidable effect on prospects for the resumption of talks. Negotiations broke off in March when Israel began building a controversial Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
"This will change the whole color of negotiations without a doubt," said Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan.
But many Israelis had long since soured on the process, convinced that peace was not possible. At the Mahane Yehuda market where the bombs shattered the sunny afternoon bustle, fruit merchant Avraham Levy was one of many enraged Jerusalemites.
"This is not a peace process," cried Mr. Levy, who said many of his co-workers had been injured in the blasts. "In the mosques, they teach their children to hate us. Bibi is not guilty, but the world will always blame us," he said, using the premier's nickname.
"We have no alternative to the peace process," yelled another Israeli who struck up a political argument with Levy among the pandemonium of police officers, ambulance squads, and terrified people. "We have to continue."
PA leaders condemned the bombings, but said aborting new efforts at resuming peace talks would give the terrorists exactly what they wanted. Lead Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath called the double bombing a "criminal act" that came "just as there was a chance to revise the peace process." But how much of a chance there is for the talks to be substantially revived is itself a divisive issue.
The diplomatic ado - such as meetings between Mr. Shaath and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, as well as a meeting in Brussels last week between Mr. Levy and Arafat - was more like an enigmatic truce. Neither side had managed to get its demands met.
Many observers here point out that negotiators had so far agreed only to a resumption of committee-level negotiations on such matters as opening Palestinian airports and seaports in the Gaza Strip and a "safe passage" between Gaza and the West Bank for travelers. While these nine committees deal mostly with civilian matters that can have an impact on everyday lives, they do not address the key territorial issues that are the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Several Palestinian lawmakers accused Israel of exaggerating the importance of the resumption of talks. But Israeli officials had seemed to be equally cautious. "This is not an official return to formal peace talks, but a return to committees," an official in the premier's office had said before the bombings.
Palestinians said that Netanyahu was under great pressure at home and abroad, and needed to push along the accords he once so vociferously castigated. But officials close to Netanyahu said that it was likely the Palestinians who were under pressure from the US. They point to the Clinton administration's apparent decision not to extend a temporary act that governs relations with the Palestinians.
The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, if allowed to expire in mid-August, would decrease funding and legitimacy afforded the Palestinians in the form of a quasi-embassy in Washington and aid to the Palestinian Authority.
The act's renewal would require a report stating the PA is in compliance with its peace commitments, something that could be difficult to do given anger in Congress over several alleged violations. "I think the bill of health in the form of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act convinced the Palestinians to go back to the table," an Israeli official said.