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Deadly Bombing Short-Circuits Rounds of Middle East Diplomacy

JERUSALEM — Seeking a response to last Sunday’s double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, Israel this week took what it considered a string of mild retaliatory measures, meant to avoid embarrassing Washington on the eve of a war with Iraq. Instead, it found itself embroiled in a first-class diplomatic crisis with Washington’s most powerful ally, Great Britain.

The January 5 attacks near Tel Aviv’s old central bus station, in the working-class Neve Sha’anan district, ended a lull of more than a month during which no attacks were carried out inside Israel’s 1967 borders. The second deadliest attack in 27 months of violence and the worst during the last seven months, it left 22 dead, including 16 Israelis and six foreign workers. Credit for the bombing, the third in Neve Sha’anan, was claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

In response, the government announced that it was blocking the departure of a Palestinian delegation to an international conference on Palestinian reform scheduled to open in London January 13. The conference is a personal initiative of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Israel’s ban on Palestinian participation is said to have embarrassed and angered him.

The travel ban was part of a “basket” of Israeli responses to the bombing, which also included the closure of three Palestinian universities considered hotbeds of extremism, as well as new restrictions on Palestinian movement between cities. More vigorous responses were ruled out by diplomatic considerations, as the United States prepares for a seemingly imminent war with Iraq and seeks to avoid escalating tensions with the Arab world. The government also barred a planned meeting of a Fatah governing council that was to have approved a draft Palestinian constitution.

The Tel Aviv attack and the government’s reactions appeared to short-circuit a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region aimed at easing Israeli-Palestinian tensions. In addition to the London conference, efforts at Palestinian reform included the aborted Fatah constitutional deliberations, which were expected to approve plans for a Palestinian prime minister, reducing Arafat’s role in day-to-day decision making.

At the same time, several rounds of meetings have taken place in Cairo in recent weeks, overseen by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, with the goal of pressuring militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad into accepting a cease-fire in attacks on Israelis. Yossi Sarid, leader of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, and his ally Yossi Beilin were in Cairo to discuss the efforts with Suleiman last weekend, but their talks were cut short when the Tel Aviv attack occurred.

Likud leaders have been skeptical of the cease-fire and reform efforts, arguing that they won’t bring change as long as Arafat is involved. “If the Palestinians want a unilateral cease-fire, it is up to them,” Likud senior statesman Moshe Arens told the Forward. “I don’t think it is their intention.”

The aborting of the London conference quickly took on a life of its own, however. A brainchild of Blair’s, it was to have brought together representatives of the so-called Madrid Quartet — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — as well as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in addition to the Palestinian delegation. No Israelis were invited.

British officials responded to the Israeli travel ban in measured terms, urging Israel to reconsider and noting that Palestinian reform was an Israeli priority. In private, however, they were said to be seething. The conference was the centerpiece of an effort by Blair, with Washington’s blessings, to move his government to the center of the Middle East diplomatic stage. Observers said he also saw the conference as a way to shore up his credentials with his party’s left and with fellow Europeans who have criticized him for his closeness to President Bush.

Israel’s ban, said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, “cannot advance the cause of peace and security for Israelis any more than it can for Palestinians.”

There was little indication that Israel would reconsider, however. Israel has viewed the London conference with suspicion from the outset, complaining that Britain had undercut hope of real reform by letting Arafat participate in choosing the delegation. Government officials were also angered over Israel’s exclusion from participation. “If they want to reform, they can reform here,” Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reportedly the author of the travel ban, said in response to British complaints.

Sources close to the government said the travel ban had been one of three options proposed by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz during a Sunday night meeting of Prime Minister Sharon’s inner cabinet, after the Tel Aviv bombing. Two other options, expelling Arafat from the territories and blocking the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues held by Israel, were rejected by Sharon because they would have violated direct pledges he made to Bush in recent months.

At the same time, political observers suggested other motives behind the choice of the London conference as a target. Relations between Israel and Britain have been strained in recent weeks by a British embargo on military exports. News reports last week indicated that the embargo was creating a shortage of spare parts, particularly pilot ejector seats for Israel’s Phantom fighter jets, that threatened to ground the main workhorse of Israel’s air force.

The feud is personal as well. Blair angered Netanyahu last month by refusing to meet with him, on the grounds that he does not habitually receive foreign ministers. The refusal came within days of Blair’s announcement that he would be meeting with Amram Mitzna, head of Israel’s opposition Labor Party, in the context of a fraternal visit between socialist party leaders.

Mitzna, speaking at an Israeli college the day after the bombings, attacked Sharon’s policies with unusual bluntness, charging that terrorist attacks were made possible by the absence of a fence between Israel and the West Bank, a result, he said, of “political considerations.”

“There’s no fence because Sharon is committed to Greater Israel,” Mitzna said. “There’s no fence because Sharon is first of all committed to the settlers and not to the security of the residents of Israel.”

“It’s possible to take action” when the will exists, Mitzna said. “There’s a fence in Gaza and no terror attacks come from there.”

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