Netanya Bombing Prompts Skeptics to Further Question Arafat’s Motives

A suicide bombing this week in Netanya has only reinforced Israeli officials’ skepticism regarding Yasser Arafat’s call for reform in the Palestinian Authority.

Sunday’s bombing in Netanya came days after Arafat delivered a speech before Palestinian legislators in which he vowed to make reforms.

The Palestinian Authority president also used the speech to denounce Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians — a denunciation that apparently fell on deaf ears among some of his constituents.

Hours before the Netanya attack, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said at the weekly Cabinet meeting that Arafat’s call for reforms was just another of his “tricks.”

After the attack, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said Israelis should not believe that Arafat’s criticism of terrorism would result in a halt to such attacks.

The attack has also prompted speculation of retaliation by the Israeli military.

Earlier this month, Israel planned and then called off a military operation in the Gaza Strip following a terror attack at a pool hall in Rishon le-Zion that killed 15 and left more than 60 injured.

There have been numerous Palestinian terror attacks in Netanya.

One such attack, at a Passover seder in late March, prompted Israel to launch a massive anti-terror military operation in the West Bank.

At least three Israelis were killed and about 58 others injured in Sunday’s suicide bombing. The bomber arrived at Netanya’s open-air market in a taxi and was wearing an Israeli army uniform, reports said.

The attack came as security forces were on alert in central Israel after receiving information that a suicide bomber was preparing an attack, Israel Radio said.

Last week, Sharon set two preconditions for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority: a halt to terror and reform in the Palestinian Authority. Sidelining Arafat from the diplomatic process is the chief reform that Sharon is seeking.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Ben-Eliezer said Arafat’s call for reforms was insufficient, adding that it had to be backed up by deeds.

In a move that is likely to provide additional ammunition to those who question Arafat’s sincerity, the Palestinian leader hinted in his May 15 speech to Palestinian legislators that he intends to rip up any peace treaty he signs with Israel.

In the speech, Arafat made a reference in Arabic to the Hudibiyya Pact, an accord that Islamic tradition says was signed by the Prophet Mohammad.

Two years after Mohammad signed the treaty with an enemy tribe, his military position improved — and he tore up the agreement and slaughtered tribe members.

It was widely reported that Arafat used the speech to call for unspecified reforms in the Palestinian Authority and to tell legislators, without mentioning a date, to prepare for new Palestinian elections.

But according to the official Palestinian Authority translation of the speech, Arafat also said: “Let us remember the Hudibiyya Conciliation Accord out of our concern for the national and pan-Arab interest of our people and nation, and out of our concern for strengthening international solidarity with your people and your cause.”

Arafat also provided yet another reason for skepticism: After issuing the call last week for Palestinian elections, Arafat amended it over the weekend, saying there would be no elections until all Israeli troops withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But perhaps the chief cause for skepticism among Israeli officials was Sunday’s attack.

Both Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility, but Israeli security forces said the Popular Front’s claim appeared more credible.

According to Israeli media reports, security officials believed Ahmed Sa’adat, the Popular Front leader who remains jailed in Jericho under British supervision, most likely masterminded the attack.

Several hours before the attack, which was believed to have been launched from the West Bank city of Tulkarm, Israeli security forces went on heightened alert for a possible attack in central Israel.

However, Israel’s police chief said there was no concrete warning that Netanya would be targeted.

Despite the surprise blockades and other measures carried out as part of the alert, the terrorist managed to get into Netanya.

On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney called on Arafat to crack down on terror, but added that there were some terror groups over which Arafat has little or no control.

At the same time, however, Cheney warned that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will not get “back on track until the violence ends.”

“We’ve got to find a way to get a handle on it,” Cheney said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” warning that if suicide bombers “achieve their desired results” in the Middle East, it would heighten the possibility they use the tactic in the United States.

In another development, CIA chief George Tenet is said to be planning to invite top Israeli and Arab intelligence officials to Washington for security talks.

Israel would likely send Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy as its representative, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday.

Senior intelligence officials from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority would also be invited, the paper said.

It is not clear whether the intelligence officials would meet together or separately with Tenet.

President Bush announced on March 7 that the CIA director would come to the Middle East to help rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.

However, the trip was delayed for two reasons, according to the paper: Tenet has yet to formulate a clear plan, and Israel opposes his meeting with Arafat.

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