Twin suicide bombs derail Israeli-Palestinian summit

Tuesday was set to be the first meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his ostensible Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qureia.

The planned summit - which would have been the first since Mr. Qureia was appointed prime minister five months ago by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - was shelved after a suicide bombing at Israel's port of Ashdod. Palestinian militants, which once competed for followers and influence, said Sunday's twin bombings were the product of a joint operation which killed the two teenage bombers, and 10 Israelis, and wounded 16 others.

It was not the first time terrorism exerted its veto power over attempts to lure Israelis and Palestinians back to discussions in the 3-1/2 years since the peace process broke down.

But the bombing and Israel's subsequent announcement that it was canceling Tuesday's summit sheds light on how tenuous the chances for progress actually are. In the eyes of some Israeli analysts, the violence may increase in the weeks ahead, even as Mr. Sharon tries to push forward with his plan to withdraw unilaterally from most of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank.

The very idea of the Israeli leader meeting with the Palestinian prime minister in some ways contradicts the key argument underlining Sharon's disengagement plan: that Israel no longer has a credible partner with whom to talk peace. Sunday's bombing was viewed by Sharon's office as fresh evidence that there was nothing to talk to the Palestinians about.

"If the terror organizations, including Fatah, which is under control of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], continues to assault citizens, what's the point of having the meeting?" says Dr. Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon.

Palestinian leaders, however, expressed disappointment at the cancelation of the summit. "What happened in Ashdod means [the two sides] need to talk to each other. Every day there is violence by Israelis and Palestinians and we need to talk to end this violence." said Hatem Abdul Kader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "[Palestinians] need this meeting because we need to understand exactly what Sharon's goals are. Right now, we don't know anything about these unilateral steps - only what we hear in the media."

Mr. Kader added that any Israeli withdrawal from Gaza "must take place through arrangements, cooperation, and agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Without the Palestinian Authority, the day after withdrawal will be a day of violence, not peace."

But bombing or no, some Israeli observers say the summit was never expected to produce results that would change the fundamental conclusion reached by Israel's government: that it is futile to expect any Palestinians under Mr. Arafat's helm to battle terrorism. As a result, Israel should try to improve - but not solve - its security problems without any meaningful Palestinian input.

"This meeting was to be a very minor public-relations exercise, which had absolutely no political value to it. There were no substantive expectations on the Israeli side," says Professor Gerald Steinberg, the head of the program on conflict management at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "The decision is that there is no partner, and that is one that is very deeply rooted and largely shared by the Americans."

It has been a year since the Bush administration introduced the road map to Middle East peace. The map was supposed to set up concrete steps for both parties in the conflict to get closer to a viable solution that would culminate in some version of a Palestinian state by 2005. The road map's introduction coincided with the start of the Iraq war, a period in which the US was facing great international criticism for making its own quasiunilateral decisions outside the framework of the UN.

The road map, says Steinberg, continues to be a tool that helps bolster the appearance of trying to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of its violent stalemate. "It is an appeasement of the European mythology that there are still discussions to be had with the Palestinian leadership," he says. "We are now at one year since the introduction of the road map, but there is no reason to expect that the implementation of the road map is feasible."

It is not clear whether the Bush administration believes in its feasibility either. Senior US officials have held several meetings here in the last week in an attempt to flesh out what Sharon has in mind by unilateral disengagement.

Sharon's approach seems to jettison any hope of reciprocity upon which the entire peace process was built. At the same time, the Bush administration is leaning toward supporting an Israeli attempt to disentangle itself from the occupation of at least some parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which looks preferable to leaving Israelis and Palestinians wrestling in the same violent lockstep.

"We still do believe in the road map and we still believe in the two-state solution, but some of the things Sharon says he's thinking about doing are very much consistent with the road map," a US official says.

"You can see this as an attempt to unstick things," the official continues. "That might mean that the Palestinians will jump in and will be more viable partners. This might be the catalyst to kick-start something."

Some argue that Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip has already triggered a far less encouraging trend.

The Ashdod port bombings took place close to containers with lethal substances, such as bromide and ammonia, as well as flammable substances such as gasoline.

In Israel, the location was deemed as a more penetrating "mega-attack" on its national infrastructure, and one that could have set off a far more lethal mixture: a so-called dirty bomb.

The planning for the attack came from nearby Gaza, viewed as evidence that various Palestinian groups are vying for control of the area if and when Israel leaves.

"This is a message to the Israelis that all their walls and fences cannot prevent us from infiltrating Israel and doing whatever we want," one militant Palestinian leader in Gaza told the Associated Press in a phone interview.

Analysts say the Israeli Army is trying to prevent Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalist groups from stepping up the violence and then using it to declare victory upon Israel's departure.

Hizbollah did as much when Israel withdrew from its occupation zone in Lebanon almost four years ago.

Monday, Israeli helicopter gunships struck two metal foundries in the Gaza Strip.

"They hit civilian places and buildings," senior Hamas official Sayed Seyam told Reuters. "The air raid is meant to cover up for the security failure of the Zionist entity in the face of the successful attack in Ashdod."

An Israeli army spokesman said the strikes were not in retaliation for Sunday's bombing, but were carried out in order to hit a factory making Kassam rockets for attacks on Israel.

"These are actions that are taken that are ongoing against the terrorist infrastructure," says Captain Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

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