Sharon cancels 'road-map' talks with Bush after bomb

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, postponed a visit to Washington for talks with George Bush yesterday after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed seven passengers on a Jerusalem bus.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing and the Israeli army imposed a closure on all West Bank towns. One of the victims on the bus was an Arab from the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem who was on his way to work.

Mr Sharon and President Bush were to have discussed the "road map", which is aimed at establishing a Palestinian state by 2005. Mr Bush was expected to urge Israel to drop its reservations about the three-phase peace plan and start implementing it immediately.

Five hours before the bombing, Mr Sharon had held a three-hour maiden summit with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. Although it produced no tangible results, an Israeli spokesman said: "I wouldn't call it a failure. I'd call it a difficult start. We haven't given up on the newly formed Palestinian government to do the right thing. And we're not standing with a stopwatch."

Despite the bombing, one of three that killed a total of nine Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Hebron over the weekend, Mr Sharon still wants to negotiate with Mr Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen. But the chances of peace look bleaker than ever.

Mr Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said yesterday that Israel was imposing no conditions for further talks. He said: "We're giving him the benefit of the doubt to prove himself. There are no pre-conditions, only expectations."

Mr Sharon's hardline coalition partners and his settler constituency were less kind. At an emergency cabinet meeting, some ministers called for tougher retaliation, including the possible expulsion of the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, and the families of suicide bombers.

Mr Sharon told the cabinet the expulsion of Mr Arafat was "not on the agenda". At least two ministers had urged him to kick Mr Arafat out.

Mr Abbas's administration condemned yesterday's bombings but insisted that all attacks ­ on Palestinians as well as Israelis ­ must stop. It noted that three Palestinians were killed and "scores" injured in the West Bank and Gaza on Saturday, homes were burnt and demolished in Hebron, and a curfew was imposed on Ramallah. "This shows there is an urgent need to go back to internationally supervised negotiations and for the Israeli government to unconditionally accept the international road map," the Palestinian leadership said. A Hamas spokesman, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said the bombing was a sign that the "resistance" was still strong.

Mr Gissin said Israel could not tolerate a "two-headed Palestinian government" with one half taking orders from Mr Arafat and the other from Mr Abbas. He said: "There has to be a surgical operation that would sever one element of that government, which continues to support terrorist activity, from the part that wants to steer a different course."

Last night, Israel arrested eight alleged members of Hamas, accusing them of planning to take hostages and exchange them for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israeli police said the eight, all residents of Jerusalem, had intended to hijack an Israeli bus and drive it to the West Bank to demand the prisoners' release.