Sharon and Abbas Talk, but Bombings Dampen Hopes for Any Quick Progress

Efforts to revive Middle East peace talks suffered another setback this week, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put off a scheduled trip to Washington following a spate of deadly terrorist attacks.

At least nine Israelis were killed and dozens wounded in two weekend suicide attacks.

Seven people were killed and 20 wounded, four of them seriously, when a terrorist dressed as a religious Jew blew himself up on a city bus in Jerusalem early Sunday morning.

The attack came a day after an Israeli couple was killed in a suicide bombing in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Hamas claimed responsibility for both attacks, identifying the bombers as residents of Hebron, reports said.

A third attack shortly after the bus bombing failed when the bomber blew himself up at a roadblock north of Jerusalem, killing only himself.

The bus bombing came just hours after Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, held talks in Jerusalem, where both agreed that “a cessation of terrorism is a first and vital step to any progress,” according to a statement issued by Sharon’s office.

Yet government sources quoted Sunday by the Ha’aretz newspaper characterized the meeting as a failure. According to the sources, Israel displayed flexibility and openness, but the Palestinians rejected all proposals outright and refused to accept security responsibility “for even one centimeter of territory.”

Palestinian officials agreed that the talks had failed, but blamed Sharon.

“The talks ended in total failure because Sharon insisted on discussing only security matters and refused to accept the ‘road map’ ” peace plan, a senior Palestinian official told the Jerusalem Post. “We hold Sharon fully responsible for the failure of the talks and for the upsurge in violence.”

Sharon and Abbas had agreed to meet again following Sharon’s visit to the United States. But after Sunday’s bus bombing, Sharon’s office said the prime minister was delaying his departure in order to convene urgent security and political consultations.

Sharon had been expected to discuss confidence-building gestures toward the Palestinians in his White House meeting with Bush, which was scheduled for Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell conveyed to Israel that the United States understood his decision to delay, Army Radio reported.

Even before the wave of attacks, expectations for the Sharon-Abbas meeting had been low in light of the differences over the road map.

The Palestinians say they accept it, and are seeking a similar declaration from Israel.

Israel says it has reservations about the plan, which it wants to discuss with the United States.

The latest attacks underscored the difficulties Israel and the Palestinians face in moving from violence to negotiations.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the Jerusalem bombing and urged Israel to act with restraint. Information Minister Nabil Amer was quoted as saying that the Palestinian Authority is committed to bring an end to attacks against civilians.

But a senior Hamas official said the attacks show the terrorist group’s intention to continue its activities.

At the special Cabinet session called to discuss Israel’s response, ministers again debated whether to exile Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Security officials say that Arafat, who is locked in a power struggle with Abbas, continues to encourage terrorist groups to carry out attacks.

Sharon reportedly opposed exiling Arafat, saying he shouldn’t benefit from red-carpet welcomes abroad.

The chief of staff of the Israeli army, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, also argued that deporting Arafat would only strengthen his standing abroad, the radio reported.

Industry Minister Ehud Olmert accused the international community, particularly the European Union, of undercutting Abbas by refusing to join Israel and the United States in boycotting Arafat. Many European governments continue to recognize Arafat as the main Palestinian leader, preventing Abbas from building an independent power base.

As a result, Olmert told Israel TV, Abbas’ government “is a paralyzed government,” and “we can’t even put it to the test of whether it wants to fight terror or not.”

The No. 6 Egged bus was about half-full as it made its way from the outlying Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev toward the center of town just before 6 a.m. Sunday.

The terrorist, who police said was wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl, boarded the bus and sat in the front. He detonated his explosives belt as the bus passed through the busy French Hill intersection in northern Jerusalem.

The bodies of the dead remained sitting upright in their seats, including that of a woman with short dark hair whose head slumped back and whose legs were still crossed. One man’s body, heaved by the blast, leaned from a broken window, The Associated Press reported. Six of the dead were residents of Pisgat Ze’ev: Olga Brenner, 52; Yitzhak Moyal, 64; Nellie Perov, 55; Marina Tzitziashvili, 44; Shimon Ustinsky, 68; and Ron Yisraeli, 35. The seventh, Tawil Ghaleb, was a Palestinian from the Shuafat refugee camp, north of Jerusalem.

Four of the dead were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Passenger Ya’acov Engelberg said he had just bent down to get something out of his bag when the bomb went off.

“When I bent down I heard an explosion. It took me a couple of seconds to understand,” he told Army Radio. “What saved me was that I bent over,” and “the back of the seat in front of me blocked the force of the blast.”

When Engelberg straightened up, he couldn’t see well because his glasses had flown off.

Still, he managed to get out the back door of the bus. The door was closed, but the glass windows had blown out.

In what police believe was a related bombing, another suicide bomber blew himself up about half an hour later at a road block border police erected north of Jerusalem after the bus attack. There were no Israeli casualties in that attack.

After the attacks, Israel imposed a full closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring all passage of Palestinians into Israel except for humanitarian cases.

Sunday’s attack came a day after an Israeli couple, Gadi and Dina Levy, 31 and 37 respectively, were killed in a suicide attack in Hebron.

Also Saturday, Israeli troops killed two armed Palestinians who attempted to infiltrate Sha’are Tikva, a settlement just inside the West Bank.

Israel’s police commissioner, Shlomo Aharonishky, linked the latest bombings to the terrorist attacks this week in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

“There is no doubt we are facing a huge wave of terror that is global and has no borders,” he said.

In another development Sunday, details were released on the arrests of an Israeli Arab cell from Jerusalem that allegedly planned to hijack an Egged bus and kidnap an Israeli soldier.

The eight cell members, all in their late 20s, allegedly received instructions from Hamas prisoners in the Ashkelon jail via messages passed on by the prisoners’ relatives, Army Radio reported.

All eight suspects have Israeli identity cards, the report said.

NEXT STORY