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Attacks Take Toll on Israeli Peace Outlook : Mideast: Rabin says bombings are destroying public’s willingness to continue talks. He declares process should continue, but not at any price.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists pose a strategic threat to Israel’s national security because they are destroying the public’s willingness to continue peace negotiations, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told his Cabinet on Sunday.

Reflecting the gloom that hangs over the nation one week after a pair of suicide bombers killed 21 Israelis, Rabin delivered such a downbeat assessment of relations with the Palestinians that one minister accused him of sounding like he wants to abandon negotiations altogether.

“The peace process should be continued, but not at any price,” Rabin responded to Shulamit Aloni, the leftist minister of communications.

Publicly, Rabin insists that negotiations with the Palestinians on extending their authority throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank will continue. But he is clearly slowing down the pace of the talks in the face of mounting evidence that the Israeli public is losing faith in his leadership and in the negotiations.

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One poll published in Israeli newspapers Friday showed that 50% of adult Jewish Israelis would vote for opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister if elections were held now and that only 28% would vote for Rabin.

In another poll, only 10% of Israeli adults said that Rabin’s speech to the nation, made after the most recent suicide bombing, contributed to their sense of personal security. In that same poll, by the respected Dahaf Institute, 51% of Israelis said that Israel should stop the peace process with the Palestinians, and 65% said that it is possible to separate Israel and the territories.

After the Jewish Sabbath ended Saturday night, several thousand Israelis from all over the country held a rally at Beit Lid, the site of the suicide bombing, calling on the government to halt talks with the Palestinians. Every day, the bombing site attracts dozens of Israelis who come to weep, curse the government and place candles near the bus stop where the explosion ripped through a crowd of soldiers.

Seizing on the support shown in the polls for separation, Rabin seems bent on taking unilateral steps that he hopes will make Israelis feel more secure, even at the risk of infuriating the Palestinians.

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Rabin asked Finance Minister Avraham Shohat on Sunday to study ways to economically separate Israel from the Palestinians in the territories. And he instructed Police Minister Moshe Shahal to study ways to enforce a security separation between Israel and the territories.

Shahal said that one step he would like to take immediately is to deploy dozens of bomb-sniffing dogs at roadblocks where Israeli soldiers check the identity papers of Palestinians seeking to cross into pre-1967 Israel. In the past, members of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, have resisted the use of dogs by police, arguing that it would be too painful a reminder of the use of dogs by the German army in World War II. But ministers reportedly endorsed the plan Sunday.

Several ministers also supported the idea of a permanent separation between Israel and the Palestinians of the territories.

“I assume that Rabin is very determined in his way to advance toward separation, which is the only way to really advance the negotiations,” Tourism Minister Uzi Baram said.

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Baram, a leader of Labor’s dovish faction, said he now favors keeping the territories closed while negotiations continue with the Palestinians.

The Cabinet agreed Sunday to extend for another week the closure imposed on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the wake of the suicide bombing.

“Lifting the closure over workers from Gaza will be examined according to the extent to which the (Palestine Liberation Organization) and the Palestinian Authority abide by the commitments they made in the agreements signed by them,” the Cabinet said in a blunt statement on extending the closure.

Closure means that about 50,000 legal and 20,000 illegal Palestinian workers are prevented from going to their jobs inside Israel. The economic impact of closure on the Palestinians is devastating, according to officials of the Palestinian Authority, who argue that closure is a form of collective punishment and violates the spirit of the Israeli-Palestinian accord.

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“This is not separation--it is suffocation,” said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s minister for municipal affairs and a key negotiator with Israel. “They are suffocating our people with roadblocks and by keeping 70,000 workers away from their jobs. Does Rabin think that by slowing the peace process he will save lives?”

Only a speeding up of negotiations will break the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Erekat insisted. But Israelis, who on Sunday buried two more young victims of the Jan. 22 suicide bombing who died of their wounds over the weekend, are in no mood to consider the suffering that the measures they are taking inflict on Palestinians.

“If we are going to talk about how we’re going to save this peace process, we have to give top priority to finding ways to make the Israeli public feel secure, even if this requires us to inflict damage on the Palestinians,” said Joseph Alpher, a political analyst and director of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee.

“The public is in a panic,” Alpher said. “Even very dovish-minded people are now saying they can’t vote for this government again and they can’t continue with this peace process because they feel that they and their families are in danger.”

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Israel has yet to schedule a fresh round of talks with the Palestinians on elections in the territories or the redeployment of Israeli troops out of West Bank towns and villages.


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