Israeli PM warns on deal after gun attack

 

The killing of an Israeli outside Jerusalem yesterday, apparently by Palestinian gunmen, has reduced the prospects for success at this week's Middle East peace summit, which is being hosted from tomorrow by the US President, Mr Bill Clinton, at the Wye Plantation in Maryland.

An Israeli man was killed as he bathed in a spring outside Jerusalem, and a second man was critically injured. The gunmen then took the Israelis' car and fled, Israeli police said, toward a nearby Palestinian village.

Hours after the killing, a statement issued from the office of the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, asserted that there was "no chance at this stage of signing an agreement" on the next Israeli withdrawal from occupied West Bank land - the main purpose of the US summit, which brings together Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat, for intensive negotiations. "Without fulfilment of all Palestinian security commitments," the statement added, "there will not be an agreement."

Mr Netanyahu himself said yesterday that he put the chances for a deal at fifty-fifty.

Visiting the Middle East for preparatory negotiations last week, the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, had seemed supremely optimistic that the summit would ultimately yield the elusive deal. She stressed that there was still a great amount of work to be done, but her euphoric smiles and her repeated talk of a new sense of "urgency" and of "mutual confidence" between the two leaders, left little doubt as to where she thought the wind was blowing.

There are those who saw that optimism confirmed in yesterday's unanimous approval by the Israeli cabinet of the appointment of the hardliner Ariel Sharon as foreign minister. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak spoke for many Arab and Israeli analysts when he praised the appointment as evidence that the peace process would now be jump-started, with the decisive strongman Gen Sharon taking a lead role.

But even before yesterday's shooting had cast its pall, the fact was that numerous critical issues of difference remained to be resolved at the summit, and that neither side has been showing any public readiness to budge. The Palestinian cabinet, at a meeting last weekend, simply restated its demand that Israel accept the US "package deal", which provides for a 13 per cent West Bank withdrawal.

And yet, at an Israeli cabinet meeting that lasted no less than seven hours yesterday, Mr Netanyahu's ministers urged him to make it clear that there would no further withdrawal whatsoever, until Mr Arafat took firmer action against the "infrastructure" of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants.

A catalogue of other demands, including the drafting of a new PLO charter, and the extradition for trial in Israel of suspected militants, was also raised.

Mr Netanyahu is to visit Jordan today for talks with Crown Prince Hassan before heading for the peace summit in the US, officials said yesterday. They said he would be accompanied by his new Foreign Minister, Gen Sharon.