Very Modest Hopes For A Truce

Mideast Israel Palestinians Arafat Peres
After an Israeli helicopter attack on Palestinian militants and a reprisal by gunmen, Palestinians are playing down prospects for talks next week between Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Peres told reporters late Thursday that he expected to meet the Palestinian leader sometime "next week." He made the comments on his arrival in Italy to meet with his Italian counterpart.

"Probably we'll have three different meetings, one after the other," Peres said, adding the talks would be in the Middle East.

Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave Peres only a limited mandate for planned talks.

No particulars have been announced. One senior Palestinian official, requesting anonymity, said the talks would be held Sunday at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza or at the Egyptian resort of Taba on the Israeli border. Other Palestinians said no decision would be made until after an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo Sunday.

Peres represents the moderate Labor party in Sharon's center-right government. Sharon has said that there can be no peace negotiations while violence continues, limiting the contacts to arranging a truce. Peres has been chafing under the limitations, and Palestinians are concerned that Peres might not have Sharon's backing in the talks.

A spokesman for Arafat said the two leaders would convene first in the Middle East, hold a second meeting in Europe and talk again in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly which opens later this month.

Learn more about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"It is essential ... that Mr. Peres comes with a clear mandate to reach understandings but it is just as important that Sharon will ratify and implement any understanding that emerges," said the spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah.

Peres' Labor party was in disarray Friday, three days after an internal election to choose a new party leader. Because of charges of ballot box-stuffing, party officials refused to pick a winner. They announced that Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg had received 50.2 percent of the votes and his opponent, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer got 48.5 percent, but an inquiry was underway.

Late Thursday night, Burg called his supporters together at party headquarters in Tel Aviv and declared himself the winner.

In a speech, Burg, a leader of the dovish wing of the party, alluded to criticism that the party has become a fig leaf for hardline government policies, such as the targeted killings of dozens of suspected Palestinian militants.

"From this deep crisis the Labor Party will return to ... the values of justice, equality and peace," he told supporters.

After Israeli helicopters targeted a Palestinian militant leader in the West Bank Thursday and killed two others instead, Palstinians shot and killed an Israeli army officer and seriously wounded another near the line between Israel and the West Bank.

Lt. Erez Merhavi, 23, and a 20-year-old female officer were in civilian clothes, driving on a road next to the West Bank, when Palestinians opened fire on the car. A militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility, saying the shooting was revenge for the Israeli helicopter attack earlier in the day.

The helicopters fired missiles at a car carrying militia commander Raed Karmi, 27, near the Palestinian town of Tulkarem. Two 20-year-old gunmen in the car were killed and Karmi was wounded.

"This will not scare me, this will push me to take revenge," Karmi said in a telephone interview. "I'll keep killing and keep resisting until the liberation of Palestine."

The helicopter attack drew criticism from the U.S. State Department. Spokesman Richard Boucher said the attacks "don't help the effort to halt the violence and the terror." He added an appeal to the Palestinians to stop attacks against Israelis.

Boucher said the State Department has not reached a conclusion that Israel's use of U.S.-made weapons is against American law. "We've made it quite clear that we're opposed to the policy of targeted killings," he said, but preferred to avoid "pushing this into a legalistic discussion."

American law requires that U.S.-supplied weapons must be used for legitimate defensive purposes.

In all, some 556 Palestinians and 158 Israelis have died in the uprising. Israel has killed dozens of Palestinian militants it says are behind attacks against Israelis under a policy widely criticized internationally.

Arafat and Peres, partners in a 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, have met several times with little result since the revolt began.

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