New Talks Ruled Out by Sharon After Attack

Posted in Broader Middle East , Israel / Palestine | 16-Mar-04 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: The New York Times

JERUSALEM, March 15 — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday ruled out political negotiations with the Palestinians for now, saying their leaders had repeatedly failed to halt attacks like a double suicide bombing a day earlier.

In a speech to Parliament, Mr. Sharon said that the bombings on Sunday in the southern port of Ashdod, which killed 10 people, reinforced "the understanding that there is no Palestinian leader with the courage, the ability, to struggle against terrorism."

Mr. Sharon was called before Parliament by opposition lawmakers seeking specifics on his plans for unilateral Israeli action that could involve withdrawing soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

He gave no new details, but said he was continuing to pursue his "disengagement plan" because he saw no prospect of negotiations with the Palestinians under the current Middle East peace initiative. The effort began last June but stalled shortly afterward.

"Soon it will become clear to the world that Israel has no real Palestinian negotiating partner for peace talks," he said. "Clearly, in this situation, there will be no political negotiations with the Palestinians."

Mr. Sharon's speech on Monday was filled with tough language, underscoring his refusal to negotiate while the violence continued. But Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Mr. Sharon, said it did not mark a change in policy.

The bombing on Sunday prompted Mr. Sharon to postpone plans for a meeting with the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei. The two had been expected to meet this week in what would have been their first face-to-face session since Mr. Qurei became prime minister in October.

Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian labor minister, said Mr. Sharon's speech was "another step in the direction of avoiding bilateral negotiations and resorting to a unilateral approach."

"I think he took it a step further in this regard," Mr. Khatib added. "He was stronger and harsher in dismissing the Palestinian side as a partner. But we feel he has been making these kinds of statements all along."

Mr. Sharon's proposals for unilateral action face criticism from Israelis as well.

Yuval Steinitz, an influential legislator in Mr. Sharon's Likud Party, said Israel should "destroy all the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, including the leadership, in Gaza."

He called for sending the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, back to Tunisia, where he spent years in exile.

Left-wing politicians have questioned whether Mr. Sharon is serious about carrying out the disengagement plan.

"Once and for all explain to the public in Israel what is behind your statements," said Yossi Sarid, a leader of the left-wing Meretz Party. "Nothing is going to come out of this because there is no plan and there never was."

Parliament approved Mr. Sharon's statement by a vote of 46 to 45. Two of the four factions in his coalition government stayed away from Parliament and did not cast ballots.

Meanwhile, Israel buried its dead from the attack on Sunday in which two Palestinian teenagers blew themselves up within a moment of each other, and about 100 yards apart, at the entrance to the large port at Ashdod.

The bombing was unusual in several respects. Palestinian factions said the two came from Gaza, the first time Palestinian bombers have managed to make it out of the fenced-in coastal territory and strike inside Israel.

On Monday, Israeli authorities still had no explanation about how the pair managed to slip out of Gaza.

It was also unusual, though not unprecedented, for the Palestinians to attack a major industrial complex rather than a crowd of Israeli civilians.

Israel carried out helicopter missile strikes in the early hours of Monday, attacking two machine workshops in Gaza City where Hamas manufactured weapons, according to Israel.

In a separate development, Israeli soldiers briefly detained a 12-year-old Palestinian boy at a West Bank checkpoint when they found a large bomb hidden in a bag he was carrying, security officials said.

The boy worked carrying bags for Palestinians at the checkpoint, outside the city of Nablus. He was unaware that his parcel was an explosive, which weighed about 20 pounds and was attached to a cellphone that could activate it, the officials said.

The officials believe that Palestinian militants intended to set off the explosive when the boy approached the soldiers. But, the soldiers were able to seize the bomb and detonate it in a controlled explosion, and the boy was released, the officials added.