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Barak insists peace talks moving forward

JERUSALEM, Jan. 17 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared determined to press ahead with the peace process despite two potential setbacks — a terrorist bombing and the postponement of the next round of negotiations with Syria.

In an attack that Israeli police said was the work of Palestinian terrorists, at least 20 people were wounded Monday by a bomb explosion in the city of Hadera.

No one was seriously hurt, although one person suffered moderate injuries.

Police said a pipe bomb had been planted inside a trash can near the market in the town’s crowded business district.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility and police were investigating whether the attack was linked to another pipe bomb attack several months ago in the coastal city of Netanya.

The bombing came as Israeli security officials were on heightened alert for possible attacks by Islamic militants opposed to the peace process.

In a separate development Monday, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced, without giving a reason, that the next round of Israeli- Syrian negotiations has been postponed indefinitely.

Syrian officials threatened over the weekend not to attend the next round of talks, originally slated to resume later in the week in the United States, citing a lack of progress in the previous round of discussions.

In Washington, President Clinton said before the announcement that he remained optimistic about the negotiations.

“They’re not as far apart as they might be,” Clinton said. “They’re not as far apart as they have been.”

Speaking to reporters in the Knesset, Barak appeared confident about the state of the peace process.

Discussing the Hadera bombing, Barak said it was clear opponents of the peace talks might try to derail the process through terrorist actions in Israel or abroad. He added that his government would use every means at its disposal to combat terrorism.

“I am convinced that sooner or later we will seize with a forceful and painful hand those responsible,” Barak said.

But at the same time, reiterating his commitment to the peace process, he added, “No type of terror will break our spirit.”

Barak also appeared unperturbed about the state of negotiations with Syria.

“We highly respect President (Hafez) Assad, and if he needs some time before the negotiations are to be resumed, we respect it and we will wait. We will be there when they will be there,” Barak said before his office announced the talks’ postponement.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials warned against believing the negotiations with Syria have reached a crisis.

Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who as army chief of staff was involved in the talks with the Syrians nearly four years ago, termed the delay a part of the negotiating process.

Foreign Minister David Levy said the Syrians are trying to pressure Israel, but that the tactic would not work.

“There is a structure to peace, which you assemble. Even the borders will be determined in negotiations,” Levy told Israel Radio. “It is a shame to take a step back and try to pressure Israel. It just is not effective.”

Meanwhile, Barak rejected suggestions that he is getting a cold shoulder from the Syrian leadership.

Over the weekend, the Syrian press rejected as far-fetched Barak’s call for a meeting with Assad to resolve some of the most difficult issues facing the two sides.

Until now, Assad has dispatched Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa to the negotiations. But Barak expressed confidence that when the talks reach a critical juncture, Assad would become personally involved — “because ultimately, we will sign an agreement only with him.”

Barak has launched a campaign to try to sway public opinion in favor of a future peace accord with Syria. He faces domestic opposition by Jewish residents of the Golan Heights, who oppose an Israeli withdrawal from the strategic plateau as part of an accord with Syria.

On Monday, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate issued a ruling that the Golan is part of the biblical Land of Israel. While the rabbinate did not say Jewish law forbids Israel from trading the Golan for peace, the ruling could sway Israel’s Orthodox population to vote in a referendum against returning it.

In addition to the talks with Syria, Israel is in the midst of permanent- status negotiations with the Palestinians.

The two sides face a mid-February deadline for concluding a framework agreement on the final status issues.

On Monday, Barak decided to delay a withdrawal from an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank. He called for a postponement of Thursday’s scheduled redeployment until some issues are cleared up in negotiations with the Palestinians.

The two sides disagree over Palestinian demands to assume control over land outside Jerusalem. Palestinian officials reacted angrily to the postponement, but their Israeli counterparts maintain they have the right, under the latest interim peace accord, to delay the pullback by three weeks.

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