New U.S. envoy meets with Arafat, Sharon after two bombs rock Jerusalem
JERUSALEM (AP) – Twin car bombings rocked downtown Jerusalem on Sunday, as the new U.S. Mideast envoy urged the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to implement a cease-fire and other recommendations of an international commission.
The blasts, claimed by Islamic militants, caused no serious injuries. But they rattled nerves hours before U.S. envoy William Burns’ visit, which marked the Bush administration’s first foray into Israel-Palestinian shuttle diplomacy.
After Sunday’s talks, Israel’s Channel Two TV reported the two sides agreed to resume meetings between security officials that had been suspended for months. There were also signs that Israel was edging toward agreeing to a freeze on Jewish settlement building after a cease-fire.
The State Department had been initially reluctant to follow the Clinton administration’s hands-on efforts to end the clashes that began in September, but appointed Burns on May 21 after the release of a report on ending the violence.
The inquiry commission, led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, called for an end to violence and for a series of confidence-building measures, including a freeze on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
On Sunday, Burns met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the autonomous West Bank town of Ramallah and then went to talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at Sharon’s Jerusalem residence.
Israeli Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar said afterward that the ”unilateral cease-fire” Israel announced last week would go on, but that Sharon told Burns ”this ‘letting it pass’ stage can’t continue forever.” Saar said Burns praised Israel’s restraint.
Burns condemned Sunday’s car bombings and said he urged Arafat ”to do everything possible to stop such attacks.” He said his talks with Arafat centered on ”how to implement the Mitchell report” and rebuild confidence between the two sides.
Israel had initially objected to the settlement clause of the Mitchell report, saying it would have to maintain some construction to account for ”natural growth.” There was also disagreement over timing – with Israel saying the confidence-building measures would have to follow a period of quiet and the Palestinians saying all the measures would have to be implemented at the same time.
On Sunday, Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin said unequivocally that Israel told Burns it ”accepted and adopted” the Mitchell report. He made no specific reference to the settlement issue, saying only that the sequence of events must start with a ”complete and unconditional cessation of hostilities,” followed by a cooling-off period and then ”confidence-building measures as the third stage.”
Channel Two, citing Palestinian sources, reported that the Palestinians had said they would be willing to accept a declaration on a settlement freeze to coincide with a cease-fire. The implementation of the freeze would be delayed while the cease-fire holds, the report said.
Palestinian officials did not confirm the report, however. Arafat aide Ahmed Abdel Rahman said only that what was needed was a ”package deal from A to Z.”
Sharon, for his part, showed Burns what he said was evidence that Arafat was behind the recent spate of bombings, Israel Radio said.
In an effort to show the Palestinians are to blame for the violence, Israel last week announced its troops would initiate no actions and only fire back in life-threatening situations. The Palestinians dismissed the move as insincere. Gunfights have continued, and recent days have seen an upswing in bombing attacks in Israel.
The Palestinians said Sunday they had compiled a list of 45 incidents of Israeli aggression since the cease-fire was announced.
Even as mediation efforts began, Sharon faced pressure from hard-liners in his government to step up Israeli reprisals. Public Security Minister Uzi Landau told Israel Radio that the current approach has afforded Arafat a chance for ”deluxe terror.”
But Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, of the moderate Labor Party, said the United States should be allowed four days to persuade Arafat to rein in the violence before resuming military action.
Burns, currently U.S. ambassador to Jordan and awaiting confirmation as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, was expected to continue his meetings with both sides Monday, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
Arafat is expected to leave the region Tuesday for Moscow.
Since fighting erupted last September, 478 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 85 on the Israeli side.
Shortly before Burns’ shuttle diplomacy began, two car bombs went off nine hours apart in the same area of downtown Jerusalem, near a police station, courthouse and a popular street full of discos and bars.
The radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the first blast, which happened shortly after midnight, disrupting the first court appearance of nine people arrested in connection with a wedding hall collapse that killed 23 people.
The militant Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the second blast, which left two people slightly injured and another 29 suffering from shock. The street, normally crowded at that hour, was relatively empty because Sunday was the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and many people were out of town.
Police were increasing security around the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, where worshippers observing Shavuot were expected to gather at dawn Monday.
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