Bombs' effects are dampening peace prospects

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Reflecting the gloom that hangs over his nation one week after suicide bombers killed 21 Israelis, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave his Cabinet such a downbeat assessment of relations with the Palestinians that one minister accused him of sounding as if he wanted to abandon negotiations altogether.

"The peace process should be continued, but not at any price," Mr. Rabin responded to Shulamit Aloni, the leftist minister of science and communications.


Mr. Rabin said the attacks pose a strategic threat to Israel's security because they are destroying the public's willingness to continue peace negotiations.

Publicly, Mr. Rabin says negotiations with the Palestinians on extending their authority 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.


In a poll published Friday, 50 percent of adult Jewish Israelis who were interviewed said they would support opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister if elections were held now and that 28 percent would back Mr. Rabin.

In another poll, by the respected Dahaf Institute, 51 percent of Israelis interviewed said that Israel should stop the peace process with the Palestinians and 65 percent said that it is possible to separate Israel and the territories.

Saturday night, several thousand Israelis 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 place candles and to weep and to curse the government.

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

Mr. Rabin asked Finance Minister Avraham Shohat yesterday 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.

Mr. 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.

Members of the Knesset (parliament) have resisted using dogs, arguing that it would be too painful a reminder of the use of dogs by the Germans in World War II. But ministers reportedly endorsed the plan yesterday.


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

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

Closure means that about 70,000 Palestinians workers -- about 50,000 legal workers and an additional 20,000 illegal workers -- are prevented from going to their jobs inside Israel.

"This is not separation. It is suffocation," said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's minister for municipal affairs and a key negotiator with Israel.