Abrupt halt to Mideast diplomacy

Tel Aviv bombings stall efforts by Cairo and London to negotiate an end to attacks.

Sunday's suicide bombings in Tel Aviv appear to have scuttled - or at least delayed - two international diplomatic attempts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The attack also suggests anew that Palestinians are working at cross purposes.

Responding to the assault, which killed 24 people including two bombers, Israel announced Monday that it would not allow senior Palestinian officials to travel to London for a meeting next week that the British government has organized to discuss Palestinian political and security reform.

The violence also calls into question an Egyptian effort to have the two main Palestinian political factions agree to a common agenda, including a renunciation of attacks on civilians inside Israel.

"Usually escalating violence should mean escalating political and diplomatic intervention as well," observes Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based Palestinian political analyst. Not so in this conflict, he continues, summarizing the view of many of the governments involved: "As long as there's violence, we're not going to try diplomacy."

This equation is the stated policy of the Israeli government, which has insisted since Ariel Sharon became prime minister in March 2001that a cessation of violence precede any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The US has made some efforts to negotiate an end to the killing, but many diplomats and analysts view the US role as a holding action designed to tamp down the worst of the violence while it pursues other policy objectives, such as the toppling of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

"The Americans, even if they are interested in meddling in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, have plenty of other crises on their hands," says Efraim Inbar, director the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Since the two sides began fighting in late September 2000, nearly 2,800 people have been killed, almost three-quarters of them Palestinian.

The most significant US attempt to pacify the situation is a "road map" toward solving the conflict that US officials have drafted in conjunction with the UN, the European Union, and Russia. But the Bush administration postponed its unveiling last month, citing the need to wait for the outcome of Israel's Jan. 28 elections.

US inaction is one reason why British and Egyptians officials have stepped up their efforts. Now these two initiatives are also in jeopardy, at least for the time being.

Yesterday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the BBC that he hoped Israel would "think again" about its travel ban, arguing that the resurgent violence demonstrated the need for dialogue. The status of the Egyptian talks was unclear yesterday, but a Western observer tracking the talks says they have not been derailed.

It was also unclear who carried out the attack. Both Islamic Jihad, a small militant group committed to Israel's destruction, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of the mainstream Fatah movement, said they were responsible.

Islamic Jihad has only lately become part of the Egyptian-sponsored talks, which have been geared mainly at an agreement between Fatah and the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas. If Islamic Jihad carried out Sunday's two bombings, it would show that even smaller Palestinian groups can disrupt or subvert the will of the Palestinian majority.

The main aim of the Egyptian-sponsored talks is for the Palestinians to forge a united front with a common political agenda that might include renouncing certain kinds of violence. Until now, Palestinian unity has been more rhetoric than substance. Whereas Hamas wants to create an Islamic state and eliminate Israel, the mainly secular Fatah favors coexistence with Israel. Earlier attempts at a cease-fire, issued by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat without any attempts at political cohesion, have failed.

If the al-Aqsa Brigades are responsible, as Mr. Rabbani says is more likely, it would illustrate the disarray on the Palestinian side. "Fatah was never the most disciplined movement to begin with, and with the fragmentation they've been undergoing it's not farfetched" to think that its operatives carried out the attack, he says.

Even though some diplomatic observers say that the Egyptian effort represents the most hopeful near-term possibility for an easing of the conflict, Palestinians within the key factions are not of one mind. That is why it is conceivable that senior Fatah officials would be engaged in talks that include discussion of a renunciation of attacks inside Israel at the very time that other Fatah operatives plan and execute just such a strike.

Israel is not impressed by the Egyptian effort. "We've had enough of talks, conferences, conventions - these groups are all cooperating in the destruction of Israel," says Yoni Peled, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "We think it's futile."

In its efforts to stop Palestinian attacks, Israel has contributed to the fragmentation Rabbani mentions by killing or imprisoning many militant leaders, thus degrading the institutional coherence of the Palestinian groups. Israel's military operations during the month of December - when there were no Palestinian attacks inside Israel proper - resulted in the death of some 45 Palestinians, many of them civilians.

Many Israelis agree - although they see little alternative - that these operations plant the seeds of future suicide bombings. So too does the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories, where aid agencies say the levels of unemployment, poverty, and frustration are rising.

A UN report issued late last year said the "crisis is fundamentally political - it will continue to worsen unless political decisions are taken to lift [Israel's] closures, curfews and other restrictions on the civilian population."

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