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Sharon Is Urged to Halt Contact With Palestinians

Mideast: Right-wing politicians voice outrage at suicide bombing that kills 1 Israeli and wounds dozens.

April 23, 2001|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Right-wing politicians demanded Sunday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon halt contact with the Palestinian Authority after a suicide bomber killed an Israeli doctor and wounded dozens of people in a central Israeli town.

The attack was the fourth since late March in or near Kfar Sava, which lies 12 miles northeast of Tel Aviv and close to the border with the West Bank. The bomber blew himself up at a bus stop crowded with Sunday morning commuters heading to jobs at the start of the Israeli workweek. More than 40 people were injured.

Sharon found himself the target of withering criticism from members of his own party and Cabinet for engaging publicly in security talks and sending others, including his son, Omri Sharon, to secret meetings with senior Palestinian officials after promising no talks unless the violence stops.

The prime minister denounced the attack, telling reporters in Jerusalem that "the Palestinian Authority is responsible for terror, and we hold it responsible also for the criminal act that happened today."

But his critics accused Sharon of talking tough while, behind the scenes, emulating the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, in his dealings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. It was Rabin who signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.

"We seem to be returning to the Rabin-Peres government strategy of meeting with Arafat, convincing Arafat and explaining to Arafat, and in this way letting him trade with violence," said Likud Party lawmaker Yuval Steinitz. "These meetings, including Omri Sharon's meetings, are damaging. They erode the government's highly respectable diplomatic achievement that there's no talk under fire."

At a meeting of Sharon's security Cabinet after the bombing, Public Security Minister Uzi Landau demanded a harsh response to the bombing and to the discovery Saturday night of the body of an Israeli in the trunk of a car at the entrance to the West Bank village of Surda. Stanislav Sandomirski, 38, had been beaten and strangled, according to police. They said he apparently got lost driving from north Jerusalem and strayed into the West Bank late last week.

Sharon's government has responded forcefully to previous attacks. After a mortar assault last week on an Israeli town, Israel briefly reoccupied a sliver of the Gaza Strip, and Saturday it destroyed a police post in Palestinian-controlled territory. But the government's occupation of Palestinian-ruled land earned it a sharp public rebuke from the Bush administration. Israeli commentators now say that Sharon is learning there are limits to the military might Israel can use.

Even Doves Fume

Still, Sunday's bombing left even doves fuming. Peres, who is once again foreign minister, said that Israel would find "an adequate reaction." Yossi Sarid, leader of the left-wing opposition in the parliament, the Knesset, canceled a scheduled meeting with Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"I was in a dilemma," Sarid said. "To postpone it was not good. To keep it was not good." In the end, he said, he and Arafat jointly decided to postpone the meeting.

"I believe that when Arafat realized what happened in Kfar Sava, he regretted it very much, because it was not in line with his intentions now," Sarid said. "This sort of thing spoils everything."

But both Peres, who recently confirmed that he has been meeting secretly with Palestinian officials in an effort to stop the fighting and return to the negotiating table, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that contacts must continue.

"The attack this morning is painful and annoying," Peres told reporters, adding, "The goal of the meetings is to put an end to these attacks."

Ben-Eliezer said that the government will "continue to do two things--to fight terrorism and to try and establish a dialogue so as to convince the Palestinians that this way they won't achieve anything."

Publicly, Sharon has refused to meet with Arafat. He has branded the Palestinian leader's security forces terrorist organizations and has rejected peacemaking efforts by the Egyptians, Jordanians and others, saying peace talks can only resume once the violence stops.

But Sharon also has sanctioned the dovish Peres' behind-the-scenes efforts and did not demur when Peres telephoned Arafat on Saturday night for a chat on ways to restore security cooperation. Sharon has agreed to security meetings with the Palestinians. And he keeps sending his son to secret talks with senior Palestinian officials despite protests from Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein, who says that it is unseemly in a democracy for a prime minister to rely on a relative as an envoy.

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