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Israeli Officials Are Unimpressed After Palestinians Announce Reforms by Naomi Segal

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The Palestinian Authority has unveiled some promised reforms — but terror attacks against Israelis continue unabated.

Three Israelis were killed and nine others wounded in Palestinian shooting attacks on two West Bank settlements over the weekend.

In the Gaza Strip, an attack was thwarted by Israeli troops who spotted two armed Palestinians swimming toward shore.

With this as a backdrop, Israeli officials were not impressed Sunday when the Palestinian Authority announced some reforms.

With Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat under internal and international pressure to implement reforms, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo announced Sunday that the Cabinet would be reduced from 31 to 21 ministers.

Rabbo also announced the appointment of an interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, to oversee the Palestinian security services. Arafat had kept the title for himself since the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994.

Israeli officials, however, downplayed the changes.

“If we see fundamental change in the behavior of the Palestinian security forces in which they intercept the attacks against Israel and not collaborate with them, we’ll know that something big has occurred,” Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was quoted as saying Sunday.

Sharon, who is meeting this week with President Bush at the White House, repeatedly has said there can be no meaningful Palestinian reforms as long as Arafat remains in power.

Sharon gave an indication of what he plans to tell Bush in an Op-Ed piece that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times, where he reiterated his position that Palestinian violence must stop before there can be negotiations.

“Israel has made painful concessions for peace before and will demonstrate diplomatic flexibility to make peace again, but it requires first and foremost a reliable partner for peace,” Sharon wrote.

Blaming the failure of previous talks with the Palestinians on the wide gaps between the sides, Sharon advocated a long-term interim agreement and ruled out a return to the pre-1967 borders.

“The only serious option for a successful negotiated settlement is one based on a long-term interim agreement that sets aside for the future issues that cannot be bridged at present,” he wrote.

“For this reason, Israel will not return to the vulnerable 1967 armistice lines, re-divide Jerusalem or concede its right to defensible borders under Resolution 242.

“Movement from a long-term interim agreement to a permanent settlement can only be guided by changes in the reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations on the ground and not by a rigid timetable.”

Israeli commentators speculated that Sharon would find a receptive audience in Bush.

Over the weekend, Bush reiterated that Arafat has failed the Palestinian people. Bush also refused to set a timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state.

After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had sought such a timetable, Bush said the United States is “not ready to lay down a specific calendar” for the creation of a Palestinian state, but added that the two sides have to resume negotiations “quickly, so we can seize the moment.”

Bush also said that before a timetable could be set, the Palestinians need to build “the institutions necessary for the emergence of a Palestinian state.”

For his part, Mubarak said he does not “think that violence will come to an end unless the people feel that there is hope for peace and there is something to show that peace is coming.”

Last Friday, Bush said he would speak about the next steps toward Middle East peace after the separate meetings with Mubarak and Sharon.

Meanwhile, the deadly pace of Palestinian terror attacks continued.

On Saturday, three Israelis were killed and nine others wounded in Palestinian attacks on two West Bank settlements.

Two Palestinian gunmen infiltrated the settlement of Karmei Tzur in the Etzion bloc early Saturday, murdering Eyal Sorek and his wife, Yael, who was nine months pregnant.

Also killed was Staff Sgt. Maj. Shalom Mordechai, 35, of Nahariya, who died of wounds sustained during a subsequent clash with the gunmen. Two other residents of the settlement and three soldiers were wounded during the exchange of fire.

One of the gunmen was killed and another escaped toward Halhoul, north of Hebron. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

The army was investigating what it said were flaws in the response of some of its troops to the infiltration.

Israeli army officials said there had been warnings of possible infiltration attempts in the area, but the army lacked enough seasoned personnel to respond to the threat. The soldiers who initially discovered the infiltration were recent draftees, according to the officials.

In another incident later Saturday, four Israelis were wounded, two seriously, by Palestinian fire on the settlement of Yitzhar near Nablus.

One Palestinian gunman was killed by Israeli fire. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility. On Sunday, Israeli forces entered the gunman’s village and imposed a curfew.

Also on Sunday, Israeli tanks entered Tulkarm, where two Palestinian gunmen were reported wounded during clashes.

In northern Gaza, an attack was thwarted last Friday when Israeli troops spotted two Palestinians swimming near the shore next to the settlement of Dugit.

The troops opened fire, killing one of the Palestinians. The body of the Palestinian, who was armed with a rifle and hand grenades in waterproof bags, was found the next morning. The second Palestinian is believed to have drowned.

Israeli army officials said the terrorists’ intended target was not immediately clear, but some reports said they may have planned to carry out an attack at an Israeli beach.

Also in Gaza, three Palestinians were killed over the weekend when bombs they were trying to place near the fence separating Israel from Gaza exploded prematurely.

In another development over the weekend, Israeli troops discovered traces of explosives in a Palestinian ambulance.

The driver was held for questioning after the discovery at the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Israel Radio reported.

Israeli officials repeatedly have charged that Palestinian terrorists have operated under cover of Red Crescent ambulances, a violation of international treaties.

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