Bombing overshadows Clinton-Arafat meeting


JERUSALEM, Jan. 2 (JTA) – President Clinton’s 11th-hour efforts to salvage the peace process may be too little, too late for many Israelis.

Faced with heavy American and European pressure to reach a peace agreement before Clinton leaves office later this month, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat flew to Washington on Tuesday for a meeting with the U.S. president.

However, their talks were overshadowed by the latest terrorist bombing in Israel, and charges that the Palestinian Authority is encouraging the attacks.

At least 30 people were wounded when a car bomb exploded Monday night in the coastal city of Netanya.

A day before, Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane – the son of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the slain founder of the outlawed far-right Kach movement – was killed along with his wife, Talia, when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on their car on a West Bank road.

Five of the couple’s six children were wounded in the attack. The couple’s only son had been dropped off at school minutes before the attack and was not with the family.

The Netanya bombing came four days after two pipe bombs exploded on a commuter bus in Tel Aviv, wounding 13 people, one of them seriously.

A week before that, Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near a roadside restaurant in the Jordan Valley in which three Israeli soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously.

Reacting to the ongoing violence and terror attacks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak expressed pessimism Tuesday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal could be reached before Clinton leaves office – or before Israel’s Feb. 6 election, for that matter.

Barak has been speaking increasingly about “separation” from the Palestinians should Clinton fail to achieve a peace deal.

During a phone conversation Monday, Barak told Clinton that Israel is now focusing on fighting terror, and that it is unlikely a peace agreement can be signed in the coming weeks, Israel Radio reported.

The report quoted Barak as telling Clinton that Israel would still consider invitations to send representatives for talks in Washington.

Speaking on Israel Army Radio, Barak accused the Palestinian leadership of supporting the terror attacks.

“The recent terrorist attacks show that the Palestinians are backing actions against us,” he said Tuesday.

Senior Israeli security officials made a similar assessment, telling a Knesset committee that the Palestinian Authority has released all jailed terrorists and is encouraging attacks against Israel.

Israeli media provided an even darker picture, reporting that Barak has instructed the Israel Defense Force to prepare for a possible regional war. In a meeting with senior IDF officers, Barak said peace talks with the Palestinians could reach an impasse that causes the region to “deteriorate to a comprehensive war.”

Barak also accused Arafat of wasting time by demanding clarifications to Clinton’s proposals before formally responding to them.

Clinton’s proposals call for far-reaching concessions by both Israel and the Palestinians.

Most controversial for Israelis is a proposal to cede control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to the Palestinians. Israel also would divide Jerusalem, with Arab neighborhoods coming under Palestinian rule.

In exchange, the Palestinians would scale back their demand that descendants of the Arab refugees who fled or were expelled during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel.

In Monday night’s attack in Netanya, the explosives had been planted in a car parked next to a bus station.

Witnesses said three blasts rocked the downtown area, scattering nails that were packed in the bombs.

“There was a big explosion. The plate glass window shattered onto customers,” said Yuval Tuchshneider, who works at an optician’s shop opposite the bombing site. “We stood there frozen, and there was horrible shrieking outside.”

Yehuda Ben-Hemo, another witness, said, “I saw a man fly from the car burning. I ran in his direction and he was burnt.”

Following the bombing, an Israeli Cabinet minister called for breaking off negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We should stop everything and figure out where we go from here,” Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said.

In the wake of the attack, Israel stepped up sanctions against the Palestinians, barring the passage of all goods except for humanitarian supplies into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel also banned Palestinian VIPs from traveling through Israel to get between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and closed the Rafah and Allenby border crossings.

The one person seriously wounded in the attack was believed to be the terrorist who detonated the explosives.

Israeli security officials were investigating whether Arafat’s Fatah movement was behind the attack, which coincided with Fatah Day commemorations in the territories.

If so, this would mark an intensification of Fatah’s struggle against Israel, which until now has not included terrorist attacks inside Israel proper. Those attacks generally have been executed by Islamic fundamentalist groups, who ostensibly are Arafat’s opposition.

As Israelis await a Palestinian response to Clinton’s peace proposals, two killings earlier this week in the West Bank drew cries for revenge and further dimmed the prospects for peace.

Settlers warned of retaliatory attacks after Binyamin Kahane was killed Sunday.

Hours later, a senior member of Arafat’s Fatah faction was gunned down near his West Bank home, and Palestinian militia leaders promised to avenge his death.

Doctors at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, where the family was taken, said Binyamin and Talia Kahane were hit by bullets, and their children were wounded when the car flipped over into a ditch.

Like his father, Binyamin Kahane was militantly anti-Arab.

Brooklyn-born Meir Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League and the Kach movement, which was outlawed in Israel in 1988 as a racist organization. He advocated forcing all Arabs from the Jewish state. He was assassinated 10 years ago in New York by an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen.

His son, who ran religious seminaries, founded Kahane Chai – Hebrew for “Kahane Lives” – which espoused his father’s beliefs. That movement also was outlawed, in 1992.

A New York native, Binyamin Kahane lived with his family in the West Bank settlement of Tapuah.

An estimated 20,000 people took part in his funeral procession through western Jerusalem, where some mourners rampaged through stores trying to attack Arab workers. Ten policemen were injured.

The procession also stopped opposite the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, where mourners denounced Barak’s peace efforts and called him a murderer.

Sunday’s slaying of the Fatah leader also drew vows of revenge.

Palestinian officials claimed that Thabet Thabet, Fatah’s secretary-general in the Tulkarm area, was the victim of an Israeli assassination squad.

Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Fatah militias in the West Bank, warned Sunday that Barak bore responsibility and that he had “opened the gates of hell.”

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