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Suicide Blast on Bus After Summit Kills 7

The Jerusalem bombing and other violence come amid talks between the Israeli and Palestinian premiers. Critics see the meeting as a sham.

May 18, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A suicide bomber killed at least seven passengers aboard a city bus at dawn today, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met for the first top-level talks between their peoples in 31 months of incessant fighting.

The two statesmen debated privately for nearly three hours, but their fledgling attempts to broker peace were undermined by shooting attacks and bombings in the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem. Between sunset and sunrise, at least 11 people died and 20 were wounded in three suicide attacks. Against this belligerent backdrop, the prime ministers' summit marked a return to negotiations that faded away in September 2000.

The meeting was "really not a matter of content or substance," said Gilead Sher, an Israeli negotiator under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "It's much more a matter of process, timing, effort and image.... The time will come for the content."

Battle-weary Israelis and Palestinians, however, quietly dismissed the meeting as a cosmetic gesture belying a deeply entrenched stalemate. Widespread cynicism in this region has been deepened by continuing violence, by lingering disappointment at the unraveling of the 1993 Oslo peace accords and by the suspicion that Sharon and Abbas lack the political strength and will they would need to enforce peace.

"It's a sham," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "A puppet show."

Day was just breaking after the Sharon-Abbas summit when the No. 6 bus pulled away from the curb and exploded. The bus full of commuters was headed downtown through the crowded streets of the city's French Hill neighborhood; it was the first day of the Israeli workweek. The militant, clad in a Jewish prayer shawl and skullcap, climbed aboard and then set off a medium-sized bomb. About half an hour later, a second suicide bomber detonated explosives at a roadblock on the edge of the city, but managed to kill only himself.

An hour after the bus bombing, charred corpses still sat in their seats, heads blasted back. The force of the explosion twisted the back end of the bus down to the sidewalk. Rush hour traffic flowed by while rescue workers pulled plastic bags over the remains.

As news of the bombing reverberated around a weary Jerusalem, Sharon postponed his trip to Washington today. He had been scheduled to meet with President Bush to discuss a U.S.-backed peace plan. Instead, he called a Cabinet meeting to consider an Israeli response to the attacks.

The overnight killings shattered any notion that this region is uniformly prepared to talk peace, and drew a hard picture of ingrained animosities. Hard-line Palestinian militant groups have rejected Abbas, whom they regard as compromised by the U.S. and Israeli officials who pushed for his appointment, and they have threatened to undermine the beginnings of any peace process.

The peace talks were delicate all along -- the two leaders walked into Sharon's heavily guarded Jerusalem offices with radically different agendas. Sharon has said he is unwilling to make compromises to achieve peace until Palestinian attacks on Israelis stop.

The Israeli prime minister wants Abbas to reform Palestinian security forces, confiscate weapons and bring muscle to bear on would-be snipers and suicide bombers.

"It's the terrorism, stupid," quipped Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "It's not the road map."

The "road map" is a three-phase peace plan that was unveiled last month and designed jointly by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell traveled here last weekend to meet with both Sharon and Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and persuade them to begin following the outline.

Skeptical Palestinians dismiss the Israeli demands as a stalling technique.

"Sharon's main concern now is to find a way to escape from his obligations to the road map," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Authority labor minister and a pollster. "He'll try to engage Abu Mazen on anything else in order to go to Bush and say: 'Wait a minute. We're working on other things.' "

Abbas, according to associates, intended to urge Sharon to ease the harsh travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians and allow besieged Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to leave his West Bank compound, where he has been a virtual prisoner for the last year. Most of all, Abbas was said to hope to sway Sharon to endorse the U.S.-backed peace plan unconditionally.

The Palestinians already have agreed to the terms of the road map, which would protect Israel from militants and set up a Palestinian state by 2005. But to Palestinians' dismay, Israel has listed more than a dozen objections.

"The road map is for implementation, not for research or discussion," Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Saturday. "We don't fully trust Sharon."

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