Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking out for the first time since a suicide bombing killed five Israelis and wounded scores of others, demanded Sunday that the new Palestinian leadership either act forcefully to prevent further attacks or face a freeze in nascent peace efforts.
“There will be no diplomatic progress, I repeat, no diplomatic progress, until the Palestinians take vigorous action to wipe out terror groups and their infrastructure,” Sharon told his Cabinet at its weekly meeting.
The radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Friday night’s attack, which targeted a crowd outside a popular Tel Aviv nightclub. The claim, however, came from the group’s external leadership in Syria, after its senior commanders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip disavowed any knowledge of the bombing.
The blast killed four Israeli club-goers along with the bomber; a fifth victim died of her injuries early today.
The attack threatened to slow or halt what had been a steady stream of goodwill gestures by the two sides since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took office Jan. 15.
Israel indicated Sunday that it intended to delay the planned release of about 400 Palestinian prisoners, which was to have taken place in coming weeks. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni informed Palestinian officials that Israel would not be convening a meeting of a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee that was to have put together a list of prisoners to be freed next.
Israeli officials had already said a pullback of Israeli troops from Palestinian population centers would be put off in the wake of the bombing, and that a hiatus in the “targeted killings” of militant leaders would no longer apply to Islamic Jihad.
While Israel said it held Syria responsible for the Tel Aviv blast because it harbored the leadership of Islamic Jihad and other militant groups, Sharon put the onus for preventing future attacks on Abbas’ government.
“This is their test,” the prime minister told members of his Likud Party in Tel Aviv.
Some Palestinian officials privately grumbled over Sharon’s demand, pointing out that Israeli troops, not Palestinian security forces, are in control of the Tulkarm area in the northern West Bank, from which the bomber set out.
The Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Korei, responded coolly to Sharon’s warning that Palestinian inaction could lead Israel to halt diplomatic moves and step up military raids, which had been sharply reduced after Abbas took office.
“It’s Israel’s decision whether to freeze contact; we won’t shed tears,” Korei, who tends to be less publicly conciliatory toward Israel than Abbas, told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. But he added that in the wake of the Feb. 8 summit between Abbas and Sharon in Egypt, there were real prospects for restarting negotiations, “and we would like to press ahead with this effort.”
Abbas, who was en route Sunday to a British-sponsored conference on Palestinian Authority reforms, had already strongly condemned the attack, the first suicide bombing in nearly four months.
Israelis, meanwhile, went about the grim ritual of burying their dead. Weeping crowds turned out Sunday for the funeral of Yael Orbach, a 28-year-old aspiring actress who was to have been married in three weeks. Her fiance was seriously injured. The two had planned to hand-deliver wedding invitations to friends they were meeting at the nightclub.
Israeli media reported Sunday that Sharon had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, telling her that without “active measures” by the Palestinians against militant organizations, there would be no movement toward implementing the American-backed peace plan known as the road map.
In another sign of flagging momentum, Palestinians postponed a meeting scheduled for Saturday in Egypt of the Palestinian militant factions, at which Abbas had hoped to obtain formal pledges of a cease-fire. The Palestinians said they expected the gathering to take place sometime later in March.
Israel had already announced that Islamic Jihad leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would not be allowed to travel to the Cairo meeting.
Israel sent mixed signals about its intentions toward Syria in the wake of the attack. Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim, who has a reputation as a firebrand, did not rule out a retaliatory strike on Syrian soil.
In October 2003, after a suicide attack in a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa killed 20 people, Israeli warplanes raided a base inside Syria that Israel claimed was being used by Palestinian militants.
Other senior Israeli officials downplayed the prospects for such a strike now. Shimon Peres, the vice premier, suggested that Israel would follow the Bush administration’s lead in dealing with Damascus.
Syria denied any involvement in the Tel Aviv bombing. However, Israel has for years demanded that Damascus expel the leaders of organizations including Hamas and Islamic Jihad and halt its sponsorship of the Lebanese-based Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.