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Clinton tries to keep peace hopes alive


JERUSALEM, Oct. 25 (JTA) — President Clinton’s offer to host Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Washington suggests he’s not ready to abandon the peace process to street violence.

But it is not at all clear whether events on the ground — including repeated Palestinian attacks on a Jerusalem neighborhood — will block Clinton’s latest effort at getting the two sides back on the road to peace.

Clinton said he wants to meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at the White House, but only if they halt the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Clinton spoke by telephone with Barak and Arafat on Tuesday night to offer the meetings.

That same night, Barak sent a security aide to meet with Arafat to ask the Palestinian leader to halt the ongoing violence, according to an Israeli official.

And on Wednesday, top security officials from the two sides were scheduled to meet to resume talks that were broken off nearly two weeks ago.

Despite these developments, there were grounds for believing that the violence that erupted late last month in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would continue.

Indeed, both Israeli and Palestinian officials said this week that they expect a long, drawn-out conflict.

“We are not talking about a short-lived adventure,” Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday.

That day, violence abated in the West Bank, but Israeli officials said it was largely because of rainy weather. In Gaza, where there was no rain, violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis continued.

American officials are likewise far from optimistic that the worst of the violence is past.

While Clinton was offering to meet with Barak and Arafat — perhaps the last during his tenure in office — the U.S. State Department warned American citizens to avoid traveling to Israel and the Palestinian territories, citing a “heightened threat of terrorist incidents” in the region.

It said Americans already there should exercise caution and avoid shopping malls, public buses and bus stops, as well as crowded areas and any demonstrations.

Even if the violence is halted, it is not clear whether Clinton’s proposed meetings in Washington will take place.

On Wednesday, Hamas warned Arafat against going to the meetings, “which our people consider a new conspiracy aimed at aborting” the monthlong Palestinian uprising.

That same day, the Washington Post, citing a Hamas official, reported that Arafat has formed a working alliance with Palestinian terrorists.

Steering committees that include Arafat loyalists and terrorist groups have been directing the violence against Israel, Mahmoud Zahar told the paper.

Zahar’s statement undermined Arafat’s contention that the Palestinian violence of the past month has been spontaneous.

Meanwhile, Israel’s major political parties have been talking about forming an emergency unity government.

Barak asked the Likud Party to join him in such a government, but met with resistance. Knesset Member Limor Livnat said the offer was not “serious.”

Meanwhile the leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, Eli Yishai, said his party would not join a unity government, but would consider joining “an emergency Cabinet for a limited time.”

Barak was also facing strong criticism within his own party’s ranks for his statement over the weekend that Israel was taking a “timeout” from the peace process.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio on Monday that Israel cannot ignore the Oslo and Camp David agreements and could not detach itself from the peace process.

“When there is shooting, one must return the fire,” said Peres, “but one must continue the peace process.”

Arafat responded to Barak’s call for a “timeout” in peace talks by saying that anyone blocking the Palestinians’ path to a state can “go to hell.”

For several nights this week, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a Jerusalem neighborhood from a nearby Arab village, drawing Israeli tank fire in return.

Barak’s security aide, Danny Yatom, warned Tuesday that Israel would “intensify” its response if Palestinian gunmen continue shooting. A day earlier, army officials threatened to surround the Arab village of Beit Jalla, from where the Palestinian gunmen have been firing on Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood.

The army warned it would hit back harder if provoked.

Brig. Gen. Ya’acov Zigdon, a senior officer at the IDF’s central command, warned Monday that the Palestinians intended to escalate the situation in Gilo even further.

Zigdon told Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who visited the neighborhood Monday, that the attackers in Beit Jalla were not local residents, but people from outside the neighborhood.

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