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Israelis Shaken by Suicide Bombing Seen As Attack on Palestinian Vote

Palestinian terrorism has reared its head once more, in an 11th-hour test for Mahmoud Abbas’ statesmanship. An Islamic Jihad suicide bomber who blew himself up Thursday in downtown Tel Aviv failed to cause massive carnage, but managed to deal another blow to the peacemaking credibility of the Palestinian Authority.

The bombing, which killed the bomber and injured at least 15 — most of them lightly — disrupted the calm of late afternoon in Tel Aviv.

The blood of the suicide bomber was smeared in streaks on the shwarma stand’s tiled wall just a few inches away from skewers of roasting meat. On the ground baguettes were strewn alongside broken glass and toppled bar stools.

The bomber had chosen a popular stand in south Tel Aviv as his target, near an open-air fruit and vegetable market frequented by working-class Israelis and foreign workers. The three Sharan brothers have owned the neighborhood staple for 15 years. Twin brothers Moshe and Itzik, both 39, were standing behind the counter when the suicide bomber entered and blew himself up just a few feet away from them.

Moshe Sharan was lightly injured with shrapnel to his cheek and right eye, said his father, Nissim Sharan, 65, who was also at the restaurant when the bomb went off. He looked on with disbelief as forensic experts and dogs picked through the debris.

Maj. Gen. David Tsur, police commander for the Tel Aviv district, said there had been no specific warnings of attacks in Tel Aviv, and that it was not clear if it was related to next week’s Palestinian elections.

“They do not need a specific reason” to stage an attack, he said, referring to those behind the bombing.

The restaurant was on the ground floor a three-story Bauhaus-style building. While police and rescue teams worked below, soldiers patrolled its rooftop. The shop next door which sells clothes and gifts was also damaged. Broken bottles of perfume lay scattered on the pavement.

The White House condemned the attack, and said it underscored the need for the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its commitments to crack down on terrorists.

“We continue to call on the Palestinian Authority to do everything it can to dismantle terrorist organizations and terrorist infrastructure,” spokesman Scott McClellan said. “It is important that they act to do so. And that is an important part of moving forward on the peace process.”

Meanwhile, Abbas, who has long argued that Palestinian terrorism could be tamed through political engagement, condemned the bombing, and said its real target was next week’s parliamentary election in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“This operation aimed to ruin the Palestinian election and scupper the steps that the Palestinian Authority is taking to return security and calm to its territories,” Abbas said.

But Israel has long accused the Palestinian Authority president of taking insufficient steps by refusing to crack down on terrorist groups as required by the U.S.-led “road map” for peace.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s acting prime minister and the heir apparent to the ailing Ariel Sharon, earlier rebuffed a call by Abbas to resume peace talks immediately. The acting prime minister said that he would be interested in negotiations should he win the March 28 general elections in Israel, but only on condition Abbas disarms and dismantles Hamas and other terrorist groups first.

With Hamas a strong contender in the Palestinian Authority ballot, that looks unlikely. Palestinian polls suggest the radical Islamic group will take at least a third of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, making it either a serious candidate to join Abbas’ Fatah faction in a coalition government or a muscular leader of the political opposition.

In any event, Abbas’ diplomatic latitude is becoming increasingly narrow, leading many political analysts to conclude that Olmert, should he be elected prime minister, will pursue the unilateral statesmanship pioneered by Sharon.

(JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.)

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