Bus attack may speed up peace talks with Palestinians

JERUSALEM — This week's suicide bomb attack on a Tel Aviv bus, intended to derail the peace process, is likely to do the opposite.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on extending self-rule in the West Bank are now expected to be accelerated, according to Israeli government sources.

Galvanized by this latest blow from Palestinian terrorists, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat are expected to infuse a new sense of urgency into their respective negotiating teams.

Indeed, Rabin, after visiting the site of the bombing Monday, vowed to resume the talks after the funerals of the five Israelis who were killed when a pipe bomb exploded on the No. 20 Dan bus traveling from Ramat Gan to central Tel Aviv.

"A small Israeli-Palestinian team will determine the time and place for continuing the talks," Rabin said. "We must not let the murderers from the Islamic Jihad and Hamas achieve their goal."

The Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, which vehemently opposes the peace process with Israel, is widely believed to be behind the suicide bombing, the third inside Israel in the past nine months.

Soon after the incident, Arafat condemned the bombing, calling it a terrorist attack aimed at sabotaging the peace process. Arafat phoned Rabin to extend his condolences to the victims' families.

The five Israelis buried on Tuesday were identified as Moshe Shkedi, 75, of Ramat Gan; Zahava Oren, 60, of Tel Aviv; Zvia Cohen, 62, of Ramat Hehayal; Rachel Tamari, 65, of Tel Aviv; and Nehama Lubovitch, 61, of Tel Aviv. The remains of a sixth person were believed to be those of the terrorist.

Another 33 people were wounded in the attack, three critically.

The bombing came as frustrated Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, having recognized that their July 25 deadline for an agreement would not be met, were bogged down in unresolved details.

Large teams from the two sides had spent last week at a secluded hotel in Zichron Ya'acov, south of Haifa, hammering away at a lengthy draft accord without much success. They reconvened Sunday at a hotel in the Dead Sea area, chosen for its distance from the center of the country — and from the hordes of Israeli demonstrators opposed to the talks who had done their best to disturb the talks the week before.

The talks are expected to resume, possibly in a country outside the Middle East, once both sides agree to a venue.

One of the key issues dividing the two sides is security. After the bus bombing, Israeli sources said the Palestinian side would likely be less rigid over issues pertaining to security.

Monday's bomb may have convinced them that despite the past three months of relative quiet, the terror threat still looms large — both for Israel and the Palestinians.

In his somber comments after Monday's attack, Rabin repeatedly praised Yasser Arafat's efforts over recent months to combat the fundamentalists inside his own camp. Rabin pointed to the recent murder, by terrorists, of two Palestinian Authority police officers as evidence of the grim seriousness with which this struggle is proceeding.

Israeli sources confirmed that the security services of the two sides have been working in increasingly close and effective cooperation in recent months. Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, has scored several successes in preventing terror attacks and in killing or capturing terror gangs, especially in the Hebron area.

Arafat's units have rounded up known Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists in Gaza. They also moved against Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine figures in Jericho, after the group claimed responsibility for the murder of two young Israeli hikers near there last week.

But Monday's bus bombing brutally showed that such success is far from absolute. The fundamentalist Hamas' master terrorist, Yehiya Ayash, known as "the engineer," probably was behind the meticulous planning of the attack. And he is still at large.

The bomb on bus No. 20 instantly and inevitably brought the entire country back in time to the horrors of two earlier bus attacks that left a scar on the national psyche: the Jan. 22 terror attack at Beit Lid Junction near Netanya and the Oct. 19, 1994, bombing of a Tel Aviv bus. More than 20 people were killed in each of those attacks. Dozens more have died in other terrorist incidents in Gaza and the West Bank.

But as Rabin perseveres in his efforts to reach a new peace agreement, he will continue to encounter fierce domestic opposition.

Rowdy but non-violent demonstrators throughout the country Monday night demanded that the government halt its talks with the Palestinians.

In the Knesset, Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu led an opposition assault on the government's policy, urging a lengthy "time out from the talks."

And President Ezer Weizman once again appeared to ally himself with these opposition calls as he has after terror outrages in the past. Visiting the injured at a Tel Aviv hospital, he called for the "forces in the Knesset to unite" and for the government "to consider all the options."

Rabin met alone with Weizman for more than two hours Monday night, presumably in an effort to head off an intervention by the president that many academic authorities consider unconstitutional.

Government ministers and supporters in the Knesset, however, rallied around Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in their determination to press ahead with the peace process despite the bombing.

Police Minister Moshe Shahal pointed out Tuesday that all those who were calling for stopping the negotiations in the wake of the bombing had been making the same argument before the attack.

Now they were merely using the bombing to bolster positions that were essentially political or ideological, he argued.

Yossi Beilin, the newly appointed minister for economic planning, said stopping the talks would give Hamas the victory it would be denied if the talks were quickly resumed and an agreement quickly concluded.