Violence erupts after end of peace talks


JERUSALEM, Jan. 29 (JTA) – Violence has filled the vacuum created after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks concluded over the weekend.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Saturday ended a week of negotiations at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, with officials from the two sides saying they had “never been closer” to an accord.

On Monday they seemed as far apart as ever, as the carnage of the four- month-old Palestinian uprising – which had gone through a brief lull during the Taba talks – resumed once again.

An Israeli motorist was shot and killed Monday evening in an ambush north of Jerusalem. The attack took place as Palestinian gunmen fired at cars on a major highway near the West Bank city of Ramallah, according to Israeli police.

The bypass road is often used by Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank.

The victim’s name was not immediately released, but he was described as a man in his 50s who lives in the Jewish settlement of Ofra.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak condemned the attack, saying the murderers would be punished.

Negotiators from the two sides had been upbeat at the end of the Taba talks, but the diplomatic atmosphere underwent a dramatic change within less than 24 hours.

On Monday, Barak accused Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat of unleashing an “attack of lies” against Israel at an important international economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Speaking to an audience that included U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Arafat accused Israel of waging “fascist military aggression” against the Palestinian people and using weapons containing depleted uranium, a charge Israel has strongly denied.

Some have compared the remarks to Suha Arafat’s wild accusations in November 1999 that Israel was poisoning Palestinian water and land.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Shimon Peres, who was part of the same panel at Davos and whose remarks had been far more conciliatory, was taken aback.

“Let’s walk the last piece of the road for peace and have it,” he implored Arafat. “Your children will be happy and our children will be happy.”

At the end of the session, the two shook hands.

In a statement issued after Arafat’s speech, Barak suspended all diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians until after the Israeli elections, but he said security contacts to try to calm the violence in the territories would continue.

In further violence Monday, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian man during a battle with Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip. Monday’s confrontation near the settlement of Neveh Dekalim was the first battle-related death in days.

At least 330 Palestinians and 50 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began in late September.

With elections for prime minister barely a week away, Barak briefed his Cabinet on Sunday on the latest round of peace talks.

At the conclusion of the Taba talks, officials from both sides said they were confident an agreement could be reached if negotiations resumed after Israel’s Feb. 6 elections.

Addressing his Cabinet a day later, Barak did not reveal extensive details but did say that Palestinian negotiators for the first time had agreed to the existence of Israeli settlements in any final peace accord.

Barak said the Palestinian team had been willing to let Israel keep clusters of West Bank land containing some 50 percent to 60 percent of the settler population, but Israel stood firm on keeping at least 80 percent of the settlers in place.

“My assessment from the outset had been that the Taba talks would not produce an agreement,” Barak told his ministers. “But we had to know how far we could get in negotiations before the elections. We are closer than ever to an agreement with the Palestinians.”

Barak is trailing badly behind Likud Party chairman Ariel Sharon in pre-election polls.

Sharon has said that if he wins he would consider forming a national unity government.

Barak said Sunday he would not serve as defense minister under Sharon, and has no place in the far-right government he would expect Sharon to form.

On Monday, Barak reiterated that no contacts are under way to form a unity government after the elections.

His statement came amid renewed speculation that both Barak and Sharon would pursue a unity government regardless of who wins the Feb. 6 vote.

Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Karia said Sunday that talks would continue after the elections, no matter who wins. But he stressed that the Palestinians would use “all means” to achieve their goals, terminology Palestinian leaders often use to hint at violence without quite saying it.

Speaking in a more explicit vein, Karia was quoted as telling the Arabic-language Al-Ayyam newspaper that if Sharon wins the elections and takes a less accommodating stance toward the Palestinians, he could face a stepped-up uprising.

A joint communique issued by Israel and the Palestinians on Saturday said the two sides would seek to return to the “normal” security situation on the ground.

Despite the declarations, it was unclear just what the talks achieved.

Palestinian officials still spoke of broad gaps on key issues, including Jerusalem, security and refugees.

The joint declaration also was assailed by the Israeli opposition. The Likud Party claimed the statement was intended to aid Barak’s electoral chances.

Sharon accused Barak of taking “steps that pose a danger to the State of Israel.”

Sharon said Sunday that Barak’s attempts to forge a peace accord had brought Israel neither peace nor security.

Instead, he said, “it brought us a state of fighting.”

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