Murder of 2 West Bank settlers jolts the peace process in Israel

JERUSALEM — The slayings of two settlers near the West Bank town of Nablus have dealt a blow to the fragile Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

But political observers in Israel believe that the talks, already proceeding at a sluggish pace, will nonetheless continue.

Israeli hard-line politicians called for an end to negotiations with the Palestinians after the shooting deaths of the settlers, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convened his security cabinet on Wednesday to discuss the situation, appeared to be unwilling to take that step.

The shooting victims — identified as Harel Ben-Nun, 18, and Shlomo Liebman, 24 — were killed while on a nighttime security patrol of Yizhar, a settlement with some 55 families.

During the cabinet session, several ministers demanded that Israel toughen its stance against the Palestinians. Transport Minister Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party demanded that the negotiations be suspended until the Palestinian Authority transferred suspected terrorists to Israel.

Netanyahu rejected demands to announce the creation of new West Bank settlements, but he approved expanding the borders of Yizhar.

The move, however, did not represent a change in policy because Netanyahu has previously backed the expansion of existing settlements.

Responding to heavy pressure from the right for a proper response, the premier told Israel Radio that the slayings demonstrated the need for a Palestinian crackdown on militants before Israel agrees to a further West Bank redeployment.

He also said Wednesday that the incident strengthened his conviction that Israel should insist on a "correct redeployment" to ensure the safety of West Bank settlers.

In a speech to Palestinian legislators in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat made no direct reference to the attack.

He charged that Israel "bears total responsibility for the total freeze in the peace process and the total chaos that will engulf the entire region if the peace process is destroyed."

In the wake of the shooting, the army imposed a curfew on Palestinian villages in the area and set up road blocks in hopes of finding the perpetrators.

Army officials also sought the help of the Palestinian police in locating those responsible.

While leaders from the right and left of Israel's political spectrum condemned the attack, their suggested responses differed.

Opposition leader Ehud Barak, in Washington with a delegation of Labor Party leaders to push for their vision of peace, urged that the negotiations continue.

Hardline legislator Michael Kleiner, a member of the Gesher Party, called for convening the Knesset from summer recess to vote on a proposal that would halt the negotiations until Arafat turned over the attackers to Israel.

The leaders of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, met with Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, whose command includes the West Bank.

The settler leaders complained that the weapon of one of the victims had been confiscated by the army before the attack.

The army has maintained a policy of revoking the weapons licenses of settlers considered a menace to public safety.

Ya'alon said the army would review the policy in light of the attack.

According to Ya'alon, the attackers who mounted the ambush on the patrol were apparently very familiar with the route. He said there were no prior intelligence warnings of attacks in the area.