The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the deaths of its fighters and civilians in recent Israeli incursions into the West Bank and Gaza. The explosion killed four Israeli soldiers, three other passengers and wounded 27 Israelis, 10 seriously.
Palestinian security officials condemned the attack.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the violence shows that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has “not moved away from a policy of terror, has not taken any steps and has not given any orders to stop attacks.”
However, Israel Radio reported that officials close to Sharon said Israel would hold off on any retaliation and would not cancel today’s talks. Sharon spoke with American envoy General Anthony Zinni but did not publicize their discussion.
Today’s high-level meeting is expected to set a timetable for a possible truce. Israel has outlined a proposal and Palestinian officials have reportedly said a cease-fire declaration was possible after the meeting.
Yasir Abed Rabbo, the minister of information for the Palestinian Authority, said a cease-fire “should be done before the end of the week.”
Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney added incentive to the negotiations, saying he would meet with Arafat if the Palestinians take steps to curb attacks by militants.
Cheney said the meeting could take place as early as next week in the Middle East. The vice president would be the highest-ranking Bush administration official to meet with the Palestinian leader.
The Bush administration has been under intense pressure from Arab allies to take a more active role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to help end the bloodshed.
Cheney set out on a tour of Arab capitals last week in part to build political support for a tough American stance against Iraq. However Arab leaders repeatedly told the vice president that they would not support the United States if it attacked Iraq while Israeli-Palestinian violence was increasing.
Cheney said that his offer is meant to solidify support for the Tenet plan, drawn up by CIA Director George Tenet, which outlines steps that need to be taken for a Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire.
Under the plan, Palestinians must arrest militants and seize illegal arms. The Israelis must withdraw to the positions held on Sept. 28, 2000, before the Palestinian uprising began.
“The Tenet work plan requires 100 percent effort by Chairman Arafat to stop the violence and the terror, and I would expect a 100 percent effort to begin immediately,” Cheney said.
General Zinni will judge whether Arafat has done enough to merit a meeting with the vice president.
If the Tenet plan is successfully implemented, the next step will be to begin to negotiations outlined by a plan created by a committee headed by former Senator George Mitchell. Under that plan, both Israel and Palestinians would take specific steps leading up to the resumption of substantive peace talks.