Killing stalls Mideast peace effort

Yesterday's assassination of an Israeli minister could ricochet into the US antiterror alliance.

The bullets that assassinated one of Israel's best known politicians, Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, yesterday quickly threatened to claim a second victim: the already fragile Middle East cease-fire.

Within hours after Zeevi was gunned down outside his hotel room in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was pointing the way toward a hard-hitting military response and comparing the challenge posed by the shooting, only the second political assassination in Israeli history, to the terrorist atrocities in the United States on Sept. 11.

"A new period has begun," he said. "As President Bush said, from today onwards the situation is different."

The killing placed the Middle East at its most dangerous point since the Sept 11 attacks. It threatened to destroy weeks of diplomacy by the US aimed at cooling off the Palestinian-Israeli conflict so that it would not disrupt Washington's war coalition.

While the mood among members of the Israeli Knesset was ominous yesterday, and Mr. Sharon fingered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and vowed an "all out war" against terrorism, analysts differed over whether or not his government could still be constrained by US pressure. They stressed that a prerequisite for Sharon to hold back would be action by Mr. Arafat against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for the shooting. The PFLP said it came as revenge for the August slaying by Israeli forces of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa in the West Bank.

Mr. Mustafa was the highest ranking political leader among dozens of people assassinated by Israel over the past year. Israel has justified the killings on the grounds that those slain were involved in violence.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops began to reverse steps they had taken on Sunday to buttress the cease-fire. Soldiers at the northern and southern entrances to Ramallah began reimposing a siege on the city, cutting it off from other towns in the West Bank. There was speculation, but no hard evidence, that the assailant had come from Ramallah.

Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo condemned the attack. "We reject all forms of political assassinations," he said, calling for an end to a "vicious cycle of killings."

Mr. Abed Rabbo said the authority bore no blame for Zeevi's death. "The one who should be held responsible is the man who is waging war against the Palestinian people for more than a year," he said, referring to Sharon.

But Israeli leaders warned that words alone would not be enough. "If there is no change in the Palestinian Authority's attitude towards terror, the whole thing will go up in flames," said Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the leading proponent of diplomacy with the Palestinians.

Zeevi, a career army officer turned politician, was eulogized by Sharon and others as a model Zionist who had contributed to Israeli security from its war of independence onward, including a stint as antiterrorism adviser to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Unmentioned was his vehement racism toward Arabs, whom he said should be "transferred" out of Israel and the occupied territories - all 3 million of them.

In an interview on Army Radio in July, Zeevi referred to illegal Palestinian workers in Israel as "lice" and "cancer." On Monday, he had announced his resignation from the cabinet because of what he charged was its failure to provide security to Israelis and the perceived left-ward drift it was taking under Mr. Peres.

Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, an ultra-orthodox legislator who sat next to Zeevi in the Knesset, said: "He was very strong. He wouldn't take a bodyguard with him. For him, not having a guard was part of living as an independent Jew in Israel."

Israeli officials hope the US will now halt the pressure for concessions to the Palestinians in the wake of the cease-fire, which was brokered during a meeting Sept. 26 between Peres and Arafat.

The Palestinians, for their part, point to Israel's continuation of its policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders, including the assassination of Hamas leader Abdel-Rahman Hammad on Sunday.

Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center said, "Zeevi stands for the killing of Palestinians and the assassination was in retaliation for the killing of a Palestinian leader. It's difficult to imagine there would be arrests for this."

In the Knesset, Sharon called for "an all-out war against the terrorists, those who provide cover for them, and those who assist them." Sharon started and ended his speech by saying of Zeevi: "May God avenge his blood."

Yossi Alpher, former acting director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Sharon "will have to react in some way unless Arafat takes far-reaching steps." He added, "American pressure is a very important factor here, both on Arafat to punish the PFLP and on Sharon not to upset the apple cart."

But Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report, said Sharon might use the assassination as an excuse to break out of the conciliatory path being pushed by Peres and Washington. "He may see this as a heaven-sent opportunity to break out of the shackles and to keep the conflict going at a low level," Mr. Susser says.

Susser predicted Sharon would now patch up ties with Avigdor Lieberman, another far-right minister who had announced he would resign along with Zeevi. Mr. Lieberman said yesterday he was suspending his resignation for the duration of the seven-day Jewish mourning period, a move observers believed might imply his return.

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