JERUSALEM - Furious over the killing of two Israelis hiking in the West Bank, Israel's prime minister said yesterday that no peace will come until Palestinians crack down on extremists, a declaration that clouds a coming visit by President Bush.
To clear the way for Bush to push for progress, the two sides had just agreed to paper over another spat: Israel's plan to build 307 apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the section claimed by the Palestinians.
But that was before Friday's shooting of two off-duty Israeli soldiers by Palestinian attackers, in a valley near the West Bank city of Hebron. There were two claims of responsibility: one from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the other from Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has ties to the Fatah movement led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking before the weekly meeting of Israel's cabinet, denounced the shooting deaths.
"As long as the Palestinian Authority doesn't take the necessary steps and act with the necessary vigor against terror organizations, Israel won't be able to carry out any change that would expose it to any jeopardy or endanger Israel's security," he said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, however, saw the talks as an answer to violence. "To address this issue between Palestinians and Israelis, we need the resumption of a meaningful peace process," Erekat said.
Israel's demand for a crackdown on Palestinian extremists derives from the internationally backed road map peace plan, the agreed basis for the talks. The road map requires dismantling violent groups, and Israel has long demanded that such a crackdown precede the implementing of any peace accords.
At Bush's Mideast conference last month in Annapolis, Md., Olmert and Abbas pledged to restart talks, aiming for a peace agreement by the end of 2008. But periodic crises are already hampering the efforts.
Since Annapolis, negotiating teams have met twice, and Olmert and Abbas have held one summit. After debating Israeli settlement policy and Jerusalem construction, the two sides have agreed to start tackling the main issues: the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and final borders - disputes that have stymied years of peace efforts.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Abbas, said yesterday that the Palestinians decided to gloss over the dispute about Jerusalem construction to keep the Israelis from blaming them for a stalemate.
Abed Rabbo said a Palestinian delegation would head to Washington this week for talks to prepare for Bush's visit, which is set to begin Jan. 8. Bush is hoping for significant progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians as a mark of success for his foreign policy.
More than 1,000
Palestinian pilgrims, including Hamas members, were put in camps in the northern Sinai yesterday until a dispute over how they will return from Egypt to the Gaza Strip is resolved.
The Palestinians arrived
in the Egyptian Red Sea port of Nuweiba in southern Sinai on Saturday after completing their pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. But they have refused Egypt's efforts to have them return to Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Aouja border crossing.
Israel fears that
if the pilgrims are allowed to return to Gaza through the direct crossing from Egypt at Rafah - where Israel has no control, and where European monitors are not working - Hamas extremists might get through, and sympathizers could smuggle cash to the Islamic group in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
But Egypt's attempts
to force the pilgrims to use the Aouja crossing have outraged Hamas supporters in Gaza, who staged large-scale protests Saturday. Hamas fears that Israel will arrest its members at the crossing.