The double Palestinian suicide-bombing that killed ten and injured at least 20 in the Israeli port of Ashdod on Sunday also destroyed any chance that some progress would come of a meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, between Ariel Sharon and Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister. Sharon cancelled the meeting, saying no talks with Palestinians are possible because their leaders don’t have the power or the courage to tackle terrorism. The meeting would have been the two men’s first since Qureia was sworn in as leader in October, 2003.
“The Palestinian leadership has done nothing; it has not carried out arrests, it has not fought against terrorism, it has not confiscated weapons and has not stopped incitement in media, schools and mosques. On the one hand, Fatah takes responsibility for terror attacks and on the other, they condemn in English the attack. The Palestinians must understand that the only way to peace is to battle terror and incitement.”
The Palestinian government condemned the attacks — which were claimed by Hamas and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a militant offshoot of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah faction — and called for an immediate ceasefire between the two sides. But it also charged that:
“Israel continues to build the security fence and continues the killings and assassinations in Gaza, which are the reason for today’s attack. Israeli policy in the Territories is the main factor behind the continuation of attacks.”
Shortly before the bombings, Israeli and Palestinian officials had held “pleasant but serious” talks in preparation for the prime ministers’ meeting.
Sharon last month unveiled a controversial, go-it-alone plan to “disengage” from the Palestinians by evacuating most or all of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Sharon has said that if peace efforts remained at an impasse, he would withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, annexing large areas of land that Palestinians want for a state. The bombings, and Sharon’s withdrawal from the talks with Qureia, make unilateral disengagement all the more likely, and on terms all the more unfavorable to Palestinians.
Qureia’s office said in a statement that it was sorry for the cancellation of the meeting, adding “we hope talks will be resumed as soon as possible”.
The Israeli paper, Ma’ariv suggests that Sharon wasn’t in any case negotiating in good faith.
PM Sharon was reportedly interested in holding a meeting with Abu Ala before traveling to the US to meet President George Bush. Israeli officials estimated that Abu-Ala would not present a substantial plan to fight terrorism during the meeting, thus allowing Sharon to concentrate on his disengagement plan.
Political sources say that Sharon wished to demonstrate that he attempted to implement the Road Map and move forward in talks with the Palestinians, but discovered there is no Palestinian partner.
If that’s true, the bombings gave Sharon enough of a reason to withdraw from the talks without going through the motions with Qureia.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat described Sharon’s decision as very unfortunate. “The language of dictation has proven to be fatal and wrong since 1967,” he said. “It is only the future of the Palestinian people that the Israeli government refuses to talk to the Palestinians about.”
According to Israel’s largest daily, Yedi’ot Aharonot, 68 percent of Israelis said in a recent poll that they backed the disengagement plan because they believed it would reduce suicide bombings.
But Ma’ariv questions “whether Israel can allow itself to withdraw from the Strip when it is brimming with terror professionals filled with a sense of victory and motivation”.
A retired Israel Navy admiral writes in the Jerusalem Post that Israel should present disengagement from Gaza as an attempt at peace, and Sharon shouldn’t allow the violence to derail movement forward on that front:
“What bothers me is something that has become a bizarre and needless fixture of Israeli military operations in Gaza: dead Palestinian kids, buried by equally young compatriots for whom such “martyrdom” is a sort of extracurricular sport.That some of these young spectators got killed and wounded is no surprise. That Israel allowed itself to become mired in such an ugly situation, is – especially given Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pledge to quit most of the Gaza Strip by year’s end. Rather than beating a retreat from Gaza and hunkering down behind its boundary fence, Israel should present the withdrawal to the world as a preliminary stage in the process of reconciliation with the Palestinians. If they manage to restore order there, we can say there is room to discuss the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Palestinian statehood.”
Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday that he was optimistic about the peace process — but that was before the attacks stalled the talks:
“But peace efforts are stirring back to life in the wake of the surprise and confusion generated by Sharon’s announcement that he was considering a partial Israeli disengagement: Unless the Palestinians quickly agreed to negotiate on his terms, Sharon said, he would close 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and withdraw Israeli troops from the territory, while reducing and presumably consolidating settlements in the West Bank.
Critics immediately portrayed the disengagement idea as one more pressure tactic or as a diversion by Sharon to draw attention from the mounting political scandals surrounding him at home. Whatever his intent, Sharon provided the Bush administration with a small opening to forge the missing link in its diplomatic strategy for the region.That means making sure that unilateral withdrawals are not used as a substitute or end point for the road map — that the process does not stop with a symbolic Israeli disengagement. The White House also will be looking for ways to link renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to its Greater Middle East Initiative to encourage reform and democracy in the Arab world. …
The Bush team is right to pursue the small opening Sharon offered and to try to enlarge it into a moment for unfreezing minds in and about the Middle East.”