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Major Battling in Mideast Shifts to the Diplomatic Front

Talks: Officials shuttle between Arafat and Barak during a 'delicate' period. Despite the reduced level of violence on the streets, a Palestinian boy is shot.


JERUSALEM — Violence that has convulsed this region for nearly two weeks ebbed Tuesday as diplomats worked to return Israelis and Palestinians to speaking terms, and Jewish and Arab leaders turned to assessing permanent damage to their communities and their ability to coexist.

A host of international officials shuttled between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in search of a formula to end fighting that has claimed nearly 90 lives and devastated the pursuit of peace in the Middle East.

In Washington, U.S. officials said President Clinton spent hours on the telephone to Barak, Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a thus-far unsuccessful attempt to organize a summit.

"We are in a period of delicate and acute diplomacy," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday after meeting twice with Arafat and once with Barak. He cautioned both leaders against making inflammatory statements and setting arbitrary deadlines. "Diplomacy by coercion does not work," he said.

Barak earlier Tuesday allowed to slip indefinitely a deadline he had set for the Palestinians to rein in the violence, in what his aides said was an attempt to give diplomatic channels a chance. Barak later reiterated his threat to crack down harshly on the Palestinians if they refuse to halt the bloodshed. The Palestinians maintain that it is the Israelis who must halt the killing.

No Turning Point Reached

Barak said it was still too soon to tell whether the clashes were over, and army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said a "turning point" had not yet been reached. The Israelis are especially concerned about the release from Palestinian jails of a number of Islamic militants suspected in terrorist bombings.

"It takes more than a 12-hour wait," Barak said at a news conference here with Annan. "I judge the situation only by actions, not talk, even though talk of a certain style may in fact help in the long run."

The Israeli leader said he will give the Palestinians three or four more days to rein in the violence.

Arafat, emerging from a meeting in Gaza City with Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, was dismissive Tuesday of Barak's new deadline. "Every time a new threat, threat after threat after threat," he said.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jake Siewert said Clinton is considering a range of steps--including an emergency summit meeting to be presided over by the president or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--to calm the situation. But he said no decisions have been made.

"For us, the question is not whether to hold a summit but how to stop the violence," said a senior administration official who is deeply involved in the strategy discussions. "It may not be a summit. It may be working the phones and using our influence in less visible ways."

U.S. enthusiasm for a possible summit was dampened by the negative reaction from Egypt, Jordan and several other Arab states. Clinton had counted on Arab allies to help mediate the dispute.

Despite the reduced level of violence Tuesday, an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers who said they fired on a crowd that threw a firebomb at their military post in the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border. The boy was not expected to live.

In the West Bank, several hundred Palestinian demonstrators battled with Israeli troops on the northern outskirts of the city of Ramallah. The crowd was inflamed by the funeral of Assam Judeh, a house painter who Palestinians believe was beaten to death by Jewish settlers.

"I fear the worst has not taken place yet," said Saeb Erekat, a senior advisor to Arafat.

Instead of unleashing its military might against the Palestinians, however, the Israeli government is pursuing a package of punishing economic sanctions, senior officials said.

A military-imposed closure that prevents thousands of Palestinians from entering Israel for work was extended until further notice, according to an army announcement. Israel also has shut down the Gaza City airport indefinitely by denying takeoff and landing rights for air traffic. Since its opening in 1998, the airport has been a source of Palestinian pride and symbol of sovereignty.

"There are quite a number of measures we can take to deliver the message that we are not happy and want to see order restored," government spokesman Nachman Shai said.

The Palestinian economy is dependent on Israel and susceptible to sanctions. An estimated 125,000 Palestinian workers travel to Israel daily, and their earnings help keep the West Bank and Gaza afloat.

There will be economic fallout for Israel too. Tomato prices have soared 20% and, in some areas, the price of cucumbers has doubled because imports from the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan have been suspended.

The Israeli Industrialists' Assn. predicted Tuesday that the ongoing crisis, if it continues, could cost the country $750 million, especially in the tourism and construction sectors.

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