Barak says peace talks endangered by Hebron shootings

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JERUSALEM — Israeli-Palestinian negotiations may be suspended entirely if the Palestinian Authority does not clamp down on terrorism, Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned.

The warning, issued after two settlers were wounded Tuesday in the West Bank town of Hebron, came at a time when Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts had already been complicated by publicly aired squabbles over when and how the Wye agreement's land-for-security deal should be implemented.

Reacting to the first attack on Israeli civilians since he took office, Barak Wednesday called on the Palestinian Authority to apprehend the perpetrators of Tuesday night's shooting attack in the often volatile West Bank town.

Israel's "security forces will wage a fight to the finish against terrorism," Barak said. "The war against terrorism takes precedence over everything else."

The Palestinian Authority condemned the incident, in which unknown gunmen opened fire on the two settlers as they were driving near the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

The two were identified as Ephraim Rosenstein and Baruch Ben-Ya'acov, who was wounded in the shoulder. Rosenstein, who lost two fingers in the attack, called on Barak to do something, "more than just words."

Days before the incident, Israeli and Palestinian leaders began publicly criticizing one another; peace talks ended in disagreement Sunday with no new date set for them to reconvene.

Barak on Monday criticized the Palestinians' "rigid" rejection of his proposal to delay a troop withdrawal that Israel promised under the Wye accord and link it to a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat said Barak's proposal is "an attempt to avoid the accurate and honest implementation of what has been agreed upon."

Barak has repeatedly stressed that Israel would not change the U.S.-brokered land-for-security deal without Arafat's approval. He indicated Sunday he would be willing to carry out the second of three Israeli withdrawals from portions of the West Bank by October. The third withdrawal would be carried out by February, by which time the two sides would have launched the final-status talks.

But Palestinian officials are rejecting the plan, saying they want the second withdrawal to take place within three weeks, and the third far sooner than February.

The first Israeli withdrawal agreed to under October's Wye accord was carried out in November. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then suspended the agreement, charging that the Palestinian Authority was not living up to its part of the deal.

It is the third withdrawal that is the major problem for Barak, who has said it could leave Jewish settlements isolated within areas under Palestinian control.

He prefers moving directly into the final-status talks, when such issues as the settlements and the borders of the Palestinian entity would be resolved. Prior to becoming prime minister, Barak made it clear that he opposed Israel's giving up West Bank land under the interim agreements, saying such moves should be reserved until the launch of the final-status talks.

Arafat, fearing that he has few chips to bargain with in the final-status talks, prefers to have the Wye withdrawals take place first.

Meanwhile, an architect of the Oslo accords called the Palestinian Authority's insistence on immediate implementation of the Wye accord a mistake.

Fretting over the details of an interim agreement would only make it more difficult to achieve the principle objective, the final-status agreement, Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said Tuesday.

Sunday's talks, headed by Israeli lawyer Gilad Sher and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, ended with the two sides unable to overcome disputes not only on Wye, but also about the basic approach to the negotiations.

Palestinian officials — in a sharp departure from the praise that greeted Barak's election in May — are now talking about a crisis in peacemaking efforts.

That brought a sharp rebuke from Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who said Monday he was "shocked" by the picture being painted by the Palestinians.