JERUSALEM, May 30 (JTA) Lurching wildly from disaster to miraculous salvation to more death and mayhem, emotionally drained Israelis watched with little optimism this week as a new American peace envoy tried to offer hope in the eight-months-old violence with the Palestinians.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns, who shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian officials early in the week, managed to engineer a round of security talks between the two sides.
But by midweek there was little evidence that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s repeated calls for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire would be answered by the Palestinian side, which seemed more intent on waging unilateral war.
With the toll from Palestinian terrorism mounting daily, Sharon and other top officials warned Tuesday that Israel’s unilateral policy of military restraint, enunciated by the premier a week ago, could not continue indefinitely.
“Both sides must declare a cease-fire, an end to terror, violence and incitement,” Sharon said Tuesday. “We did, but unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority not only did not make such a declaration, but we see the opposite an increase in violence.”
For their part, the Palestinians have rejected Sharon’s unilateral declaration of a cease-fire last week as a public relations ploy.
The only slight glimmer of hope in an otherwise dismal week was a meeting held Tuesday night in Ramallah between Israeli and Palestinian military officers and security officials, the first such encounter for many weeks.
But the meeting ended inconclusively after Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian security in the West Bank, and Avi Dichter, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, did not attend.
Even the planning for the meeting, which was to focus on violence in the West Bank, reflected the distance between the two sides: Israel spoke of a resumption of security “coordination,” while the Palestinians refused to use the word “coordination” and spoke only of security “talks.”
A second round of talks, this one focusing on the Gaza Strip, was scheduled for Wednesday night.
Optimists hoped the meetings portended a move to implement what both sides claim is their acceptance of a U.S.-led fact-finding panel’s recommendations.
The panel, headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, called earlier this month for an unconditional cease-fire as the first step toward moving from violence back to the negotiating table.
Under the Mitchell panel’s formula, a cooling-off period after the cease-fire will be followed by “confidence-building measures” by each side including a total freeze of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel’s unity government insists that it endorses the Mitchell Report, but it has voiced reservations over the settlement provision.
Sharon told CNN on Tuesday that the government’s policy guidelines, which rule out building new settlements but allow for the expansion of existing ones, are flexible enough to enable Israel to accept the Mitchell plan.
Rightist members of the coalition have threatened to quit if a settlement freeze goes into effect.
On Wednesday, Sharon said in a speech before the Knesset that Israel’s “blood is boiling” over continued Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers.
Nonetheless, Sharon said the army would maintain the limited cease- fire he announced last week.
Dismissing calls from some hawkish lawmakers to retaliate for the attacks, Sharon said, “The responsibility on my shoulders requires that I choose a path of patience and restraint.”
That same day, a car bomb exploded outside a high school in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, lightly injuring six people.
Hospital officials said four of those injured were teen-agers. Classes were not in session at the time of the explosion, which Israeli police called a Palestinian terror attack.
It came during a week filled with violence.
On Tuesday, an Israeli family of seven ran into a roadside ambush in the heart of the Etzion Bloc, just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
A resident of the settlement of Efrat Sarah Blaustein, 53, an immigrant from the United States was killed when shots were fired at her car near the Israeli settlement of Neveh Daniel. Her husband, Norman, was slightly wounded, and a son, Sammy, was seriously wounded with three bullets in his back.
Another Efrat resident, Esther Alva, 20, died several hours after the attack.
The attack occurred as the minivan was driving to the funeral of a previous terror victim: Gilead Zar, gunned down in an ambush in the northern West Bank earlier on Tuesday. Zar had been a security coordinator for the settlement of Itamar near Nablus.
According to reports, when Zar’s car stopped after the first round of gunfire, the gunmen approached and shot him at close range.
The militia of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party claimed responsibility for the attack.
Palestinian terrorists also fired shots at the funeral procession for Zar, but no one was hurt.
In the Gaza Strip, two Israeli soldiers were wounded by a Palestinian who exploded a bomb strapped to his body. In addition, Arafat’s Fatah party militia briefly kidnapped two Newsweek journalists, ostensibly to send a message to the British and American governments over their alleged pro-Israel bias.
Tuesday’s three murders, dreadful as they were, sent fewer shock waves through the Israeli public than a brace of bombings in Jerusalem two days earlier that miraculously failed to end in carnage.
The first came after midnight early Sunday morning, when a car bomb exploded along a row of popular bars that are the center of Jerusalem’s nightlife. Despite the large quantity of explosives in the vehicle, the only injuries were a few abrasions.
Early the following morning, terror struck again. Barely 50 yards from the first car bomb, another huge charge exploded, hurling mortars and bomblets from a parked car for a radius of hundreds of yards in the center of the capital.
Again, somehow, there were only light injuries.
The city center was closed for hours as bomb experts toiled in the blazing heat to neutralize the charges.
Israelis seemed paralyzed by a sense of impotence in the face of indiscriminate terror able to infiltrate their lives with such seeming ease.
There was more terror last Friday, when a car bomb exploded near the Hadera bus station in central Israel. At least 39 people were injured in that blast, which killed two suicide bombers.
Another suicide bombing took place later that day outside an Israeli army post in the Gaza Strip, killing only the perpetrator.
Hamas videotaped the Gaza truck bombing and later released the footage a practice copied from Hezbollah, which often filmed its attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon before Israel’s withdrawal a year ago.
Familiar with the thinking of the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, diplomatic observers sought to draw parallels between them, despite the obvious differences.
Arafat, they say, believes he can wear out Israel with incessant violence, toppling Sharon and eventually installing a government that will offer him even more than former Prime Minister Ehud Barak did in rounds of peace talks last year.
Sharon, say these observers, believes that staunch military resolve can overpower the Palestinian Authority and force it or its successor to accept an interim arrangement far more stingy than the deal Barak offered and Arafat spurned.
Inside the Israeli political community, meanwhile, a third view appears to be gaining momentum.
Some politicians, among them Haim Ramon of Labor and Dan Meridor of the Center Party, increasingly speak of the need for Israel unilaterally to lay down its border line along part, at least, of the West Bank.
The tactical goal is to halt or much reduce terrorist infiltration.
The “price” is obvious, too: The dismantlement of far-flung settlements, and perhaps more than just the far-flung ones.
Such a step inexorably leads into the heart of the Israeli political divide. But the unilateralists say this is no time for politics; it is time, they say, for effective self-defense.
(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)