Background: What’s Next in the Mideast
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IAN WILLIAMS: The mangled remains at the banquet hall in which 250 people had gathered last night for a meal to mark the beginning of the Jewish Passover holidays. When a Hamas suicide bomber triggered his explosives in this crowded room, he was striking at the heart of Judaism, bringing carnage for families gathered for one of their most important religious celebrations. 20 people are dead; another 81 remain in hospital.
The radical Islamic group Hamas released a video, in which the bomber claimed he did it in revenge for Israeli attacks on Palestinians. But the Israeli government is pinning the blame squarely on Yasser Arafat.
EMMANUEL NACHSHON, Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman: The Palestinians have sent us a double message. There is a message first of all to Israel, and it is a message of death and blood. And there is a message also to the Arab League, and it is a message of extremism. We have definitely the impression that the Palestinians, headed by Yasser Arafat, have rejected the mission of General Zinni, and are now in the camp of the most extreme enemies of the state of Israel.
IAN WILLIAMS: The Israeli prime minister has been meeting with security chiefs, hard-liners urging him to hit back harshly in revenge for what they’re calling “The Passover Massacre.” From inside Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority said they strongly condemned the bombing, and urged Israel not to escalate the violence.
JIM LEHRER: The events in Israel overshadowed the Arab summit in Beirut that ended today. Margaret Warner looks at that, and where the peace process stands tonight.
MARGARET WARNER: The 22 Arab leaders meeting in Beirut today unanimously endorsed a proposal for peace with Israel. The unprecedented move followed a day of infighting among the delegates at the Arab League summit, and one of the deadliest Palestinian suicide attacks on Israel.
The peace initiative — advanced by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah — offers normal relations with Arab nations and security for Israel, in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in the 1967 war; creation of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem; and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, in line with a U.N. resolution calling for refugees to be repatriated or compensated.
At the close of the summit, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister made a direct appeal to Israeli citizens.
PRINCE SAUD AL FAISAL, Foreign Minister, Saudi Arabia: I hope the people of Israel who are interested in the security of their children will see to it that this peace initiative is responded to in kind. And for Israel to gamble once– in 50 years, they have gambled in intimidation, in war and violence, let them gamble on peace once.
MARGARET WARNER: There were varying responses from the Israeli government. A foreign ministry spokesman called the plan a “non-starter,” while an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it was an “interesting proposal.”
In Washington, the Bush Administration praised the Arab League’s action.
RICHARD BOUCHER, State Department Spokesman: The fact that a senior group of Arab leaders has gotten together to talk about peace with Israel, and has come out with that as the main trust of their council, the fact that Crown Prince Abdullah has made this speech and received the endorsement of the Arab world, to us that is news, and that’s a good thing.
MARGARET WARNER: Administration officials said that despite the new violence, U.S. Envoy Anthony Zinni is continuing his efforts to arrange a cease-fire, and to get both sides back to the negotiating table. Speaking through an interpreter this evening, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he was ready to implement an unconditional cease-fire under a plan drafted by George Tenet last June.
YASSER ARAFAT (Translated): I would like to reiterate our readiness to work in order for a cease, for an immediate cease-fire. We are ready to immediately begin the implementation of the Tenet work plan without any conditions.
MARGARET WARNER: Arafat also warned that Israel appeared to be preparing a “massive military operation against our people,” in retaliation for yesterday’s suicide attack.