Can Clinton pull off peace accord before leaving office

JERUSALEM — President Clinton's 11th-hour efforts to salvage the peace process may be too little, too late for many Israelis.

Following reports that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had conditionally accepted Clinton's proposals as a basis for discussion, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday agreed to send his chief peace negotiator to Washington to see if there is a basis for new talks with the Palestinians, even as Israeli officials downplayed the prospects for success.

Gilad Sher was due to meet American officials as early as Thursday, according to news agencies. Palestinian negotiators would then come to Washington next week. No direct Israeli-Palestinian talks are planned at this stage, according to the reports.

The sides are trying to hammer out a peace agreement before Clinton's term expires Jan. 20 and Barak faces elections Feb. 6.

The development came just a day after Barak announced a break in negotiations, saying Israel would concentrate instead on fighting a surging wave of Palestinian violence and terror.

Arafat reportedly said the Palestinians would agree to 12 days of talks with Israeli officials. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, however, said talks would resume only if the level of Palestinian violence markedly subsides.

In any case, Barak, Ben-Ami and U.S. officials were doubtful that an agreement could be reached quickly, with Ben-Ami saying it would take a "miracle."

The Palestinians attached so many qualifiers to their acceptance of Clinton's proposals — including the insistence that Palestinian refugees and their descendants have the right to return to homes they left in 1948 in what is now Israel — that it is not clear what part of the plan Arafat in fact accepted.

Tuesday's White House talks between Clinton and Arafat were overshadowed by the latest terrorist bombing in Israel and charges that the Palestinian Authority is encouraging the attacks.

At least 40 people were reported wounded when a car bomb exploded Monday night in the coastal city of Netanya.

A day before, Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane — the son of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the slain founder of the outlawed far-right Kach movement — was killed along with his wife, Talia, when gunmen opened fire on their car on a West Bank road. The Palestinian group Martyrs of the al-Aksa Intifada claimed responsibility for the attack, according to a CNN report.

Five of the couple's six children were wounded in the attack. The couple's only son had been dropped off at school minutes before the attack and was not with the family.

The Netanya bombing came four days after two pipe bombs exploded on a commuter bus in Tel Aviv, wounding 13 people, one of them seriously.

A week before that, Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near a roadside restaurant in the Jordan Valley in which three Israeli soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously.

Should Clinton fail to achieve a peace deal, Barak has been speaking increasingly about "separation" from the Palestinians.

During a phone conversation Monday, Barak told Clinton that Israel is now focusing on fighting terror, Israel Radio reported

Senior Israeli security officials told a Knesset committee that the Palestinian Authority has released all jailed terrorists and is encouraging attacks against Israel.

Israeli media provided an even darker picture, reporting that Barak has instructed the Israel Defense Force to prepare for a possible regional war. In a meeting with senior IDF officers, Barak said peace talks with the Palestinians could reach an impasse that causes the region to "deteriorate to a comprehensive war."

Ben-Ami lamented that Arafat had taken so long to respond to Clinton's proposal that little time was left for negotiations.

Clinton's proposals call for far-reaching concessions by both Israel and the Palestinians.

Most controversial for Israelis is a proposal to cede control of Jerusalem's Temple Mount to the Palestinians. Israel also would divide Jerusalem, with Arab neighborhoods coming under Palestinian rule.

In exchange, the Palestinians would scale back their demand that descendants of the Arab refugees who fled or were expelled during Israel's 1948 War of Independence — some 4 million — be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel. Most Israelis consider this demand a veiled call for the elimination of the Jewish state.

In the wake of the Netanya attack, Israel stepped up sanctions against the Palestinians, barring the passage of all goods except for humanitarian supplies into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel also banned Palestinian VIPs from traveling through Israel to get between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and closed the Rafah and Allenby border crossings.

The one person seriously wounded in the attack was believed to be the terrorist who detonated the explosives.

Israeli security officials were investigating whether Arafat's Fatah movement was behind the attack, which coincided with Fatah Day commemorations in the territories.

Settlers warned of retaliatory attacks after Kahane and his wife were killed Sunday. Doctors at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, where the family was taken, said Binyamin and Talia Kahane were hit by bullets, and their children were wounded when the car flipped over into a ditch.

Binyamin Kahane's father, Brooklyn-born Meir Kahane, founded the Jewish Defense League and the Kach movement, which was outlawed in Israel in 1988 as a racist organization. He advocated forcing all Arabs from the Jewish state. He was assassinated 10 years ago in New York by an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen.

Binyamin Kahane founded Kahane Chai — Hebrew for "Kahane Lives" — which espoused his father's beliefs. That movement also was outlawed, in 1992.

A New York native, Binyamin Kahane lived with his family in the West Bank settlement of Tapuah.

An estimated 20,000 people took part in his funeral procession through western Jerusalem, where some mourners rampaged through stores trying to attack Arab workers. Ten policemen were injured.

Hours later, in an unrelated affair, a senior member of Arafat's Fatah faction was gunned down near his West Bank home, and Palestinian militia leaders promised to avenge his death.

Palestinian officials claimed that Thabet Thabet, Fatah's secretary-general in the Tulkarm area, was the victim of an Israeli assassination squad.

Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Fatah militias in the West Bank, warned Sunday that Barak bore responsibility and that he had "opened the gates of hell."