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Israel: Leaders Meet To Discuss Next Moves As Situation Deteriorates

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is discussing today with top military commanders and senior cabinet ministers a response to this week's two Palestinian suicide bombings. The militant group Hamas has claimed responsibility for both attacks, which killed 15 people.

Prague, 11 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said today that Israel should ignore U.S. objections and expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly turned down calls to expel Arafat, fearing disapproval from the United States. Israel and the U.S. accuse Arafat of trying to sabotage the peace process.

Arafat, who denies the accusation, has been confined to his headquarters in Ramallah, in the West Bank, for months. Agencies report today that Israeli troops have taken up positions overlooking Arafat's headquarters, and Sharon is due today to meet his security cabinet to discuss further military moves against Palestinian militants.

Yesterday, Israeli warplanes bombed the home of a Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar. He survived, but his son and a bodyguard were killed. At a hospital in Gaza City, Zahar promised more acts of violence in response to Israeli security operations.

"These crimes are escalating the process of resistance, and we are dead sure that they (Israelis) are not going to achieve their goal," he said. "Sooner or later we are going to achieve our liberation."

Also yesterday, Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmad Qurei accepted the nomination to become the new Palestinian prime minister, following the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas. Qurei said he will start immediately forming what he called a "crisis cabinet."

The Palestinian Parliament was to meet today in Ramallah to approve Qurei, but the meeting was postponed until 14 September. Palestinian cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, speaking today in Ramallah: "The executive committee [of the Palestine Liberation Organization] will discuss ways to form a new Palestinian government, and then the formation of the government will be brought before the Palestinian Legislative Council for approval."

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush called on Qurei to confront the security challenges and to stop the violence against Israel.

"His job -- if he is interested in the two-state solution -- is to consolidate power within his administration to get the security forces under control -- all security forces -- and then to unleash those security forces against killers," Bush said.

Bush said he remains committed to the Mideast peace plan known as the road map, which calls for an end to violence on both sides and a Palestinian state by 2005.

"I still believe strongly that two states living side by side in peace is a hopeful vision for the future of the Middle East," he said. "The road map is still there. The fundamental question is whether or not people, peaceful people, will be on the road."

Mideast analysts are cautious, however, questioning whether the four sponsors of the road map -- the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, known as the Quartet -- are prepared to take energetic measures to help solve the current crisis.

Willy Gafni is former director of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, said: "I don't believe that [the Quartet] will intervene. They will speak, they will try with diplomacy and so on. But the question here is blood has been shed on both sides. And we have crazy people who are ready to fight until the last drop of the blood of the other. With nice diplomacy, you cannot achieve it. And I'm afraid that the Quartet will play around with the niceties and unsatisfactory diplomacy."

Daniel Neep is head of the Middle East program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London. In an interview with RFE/RL, he also expressed doubt about immediate international mediation efforts to stabilize the situation.

"I think that the only people that could really try and step in and separate the two sides is the U.S," Neep said. "The U.S. at the moment is not particularly inclined to do so. Although they have been quite committed to the road map -- they've moved it along considerably, maybe much more that we thought a few months ago -- it's unlikely that there will be any high-level representatives to Israel and Palestine at this point simply because the chances of failure are so high. And I don't think at the moment that the conditions are right for them to do that."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- speaking yesterday in Geneva -- called on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to halt the hostilities and resume negotiations.

"The only way to settle this dispute is through dialogue, and I hope the parties will exercise restraint because this cycle of violence, retaliation and vengeance is not going to resolve the issue," Annan said. "And I would hope that they will move forward and implement the road map that will lead to a final solution for the situation."

Israeli and Palestinian officials each blame the other for the cycle of violence and put conditions on returning to the negotiating table. Gafni told RFE/RL these statements only exacerbate tensions.

"It's a terrible situation for both sides," Gafni said. "Unfortunately, both people -- the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well -- are suffering from lack of leadership on both sides that understand that killing each other is not going to bring any benefit to either side. To say the truth, I am very pessimistic about the future."

He continued: "The road map peace plan is a good solution, I would say maybe the only solution that can be made. Unfortunately, both sides are not giving what they should have given in order to make it work."

Meanwhile, Israeli troops conducted new security operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip early today, destroying the houses of two suspected Palestinian militants.