JERUSALEM — Increasingly isolated Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed Tuesday to truce talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres under German supervision.
A short time later, a small but terrifying car bomb exploded outside a popular row of Jerusalem restaurants. No one was hurt, but police said calamity was narrowly avoided.
Offering a tiny flicker of hope, negotiations aimed at a cease-fire in nearly 11 months of bloodshed could take place as early as next week in Berlin, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
Expectations are understandably low: The last cease-fire, brokered by CIA Director George J. Tenet in June, only briefly reduced the level of violence.
Still, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said they were encouraged by Arafat's stance, saying it is up to the Palestinian Authority president to call off the Palestinian revolt--even though few analysts believe that he has complete control over all the armed elements in his society.
Arafat emerged Tuesday from a meeting with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in the West Bank city of Ramallah and said he was ready to talk to Peres "at any moment."
"I welcome your [Fischer's] good ideas and I welcome meeting . . . Shimon Peres in your office in Berlin as you suggested," Arafat told Fischer in front of reporters.
In the Hungarian capital, Budapest, for meetings with Hungarian officials, Peres said he will see Arafat "in the near future." No date was mentioned, but Israeli state radio gave next week in Berlin as the time and place.
The meeting, if it occurred, would be the highest-level substantive Israeli-Palestinian contact in months. Although Arafat and Peres, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for the landmark 1993 Oslo accords, met informally in June and again last month, Peres did not have the mandate he does now to negotiate an end to the violence.
Almost alone within the Israeli government in his pursuit of dialogue with Arafat, Peres was granted reluctant permission by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to seek a meeting. Peres had been rebuffed repeatedly by angry Palestinian officials until Arafat relented Tuesday.
Israeli officials close to the hawkish Sharon were skeptical Tuesday night that the talks would amount to much. But Arafat may have his own reasons for seeking an end to the conflict. Islamic extremists whom he brought into the mainstream at the start of the uprising have seen their power grow enormously while Arafat's popularity has diminished. And foreign capitals that were once friendly, especially Washington, have turned a cold shoulder to him.
A couple of hours after Arafat and Fischer appeared together at a news conference announcing the likely resumption of truce talks, a small bomb underneath a white Subaru exploded in downtown Jerusalem on a narrow street packed with restaurants. There were no injuries and minimal damage.
However, police discovered a second, very large bomb packed with nails in the car's trunk and spent the rest of the day neutralizing it through controlled explosions. Police spokesman Gil Kleiman said the smaller bomb may have been intended to lure security agents to the scene in time to bear the brunt of a second, more powerful blast.
"If it had gone off, it would have caused a great deal of damage and many casualties," Jerusalem Police Chief Miki Levy said at the scene.
Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular were already on alert for Palestinian suicide bombers after attacks at a Jerusalem pizzeria this month and a Tel Aviv disco in June that killed more than three dozen people. Islamic militants say a contingent of bombers is poised to attack.
The car had been parked at the site for several days and had even been ticketed. Three Palestinians from Jerusalem were arrested for questioning, police said.
Early today, Palestinian officials said Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians in a gunfight near the West Bank city of Nablus. Israel Radio, citing military sources, said the soldiers believed that the Palestinians were placing a bomb.
On Tuesday, Fischer took his diplomatic mission from Arafat to Sharon. In the evening, the German foreign minister returned to Ramallah for an unscheduled meeting with the Palestinian leader.
Fischer said the Arafat-Peres discussions would include Peres' reported proposal for a phased cessation of hostilities. And Israeli television reported that Sharon's heretofore ironclad insistence on a seven-day period of absolute quiet in the conflict before other steps could be taken is being shelved, possibly under U.S. pressure.
Peres, who met with Fischer on Monday, outlined to him a plan for the gradual enactment of a cease-fire, first in areas of the Gaza Strip and West Bank that are relatively quiet and then in more volatile spots, according to Israeli media. The plan also includes steps for easing economic restrictions on Palestinians.
"We are very interested in the new ideas of Foreign Minister Peres," Fischer said.
Peres goes into any talks with a limited mandate. Sharon ordered the dovish foreign minister not to discuss political issues, instead restricting him to matters related to a cease-fire.