Mubarak and Hussein rally to Arafat's aid

Netanyahu and Hamas put squeeze on Palestinian leader ahead of US Secretary of State's visit

In an attempt to get the United States to take the initiative in defusing the growing crisis in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, met King Hussein of Jordan and President Mubarak of Egypt in Cairo yesterday.

The meeting comes a few days before the first visit of Madeleine Albright as US Secretary of State to the Middle East and amid reports that she will undertake no political initiative in the wake of the suicide bombs in Jerusalem last Thursday, which killed seven and wounded 192 people.

The aim of the mini-summit in Cairo will be to try to relieve some of the pressure on Mr Arafat, who is being squeezed between the conflicting demands of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation behind the suicide bombing campaign. For different reasons both Mr Netanyahu and Hamas would like to weaken Mr Arafat and undermine the Oslo accords.

"It is clear that the peace process and the occupied Palestinian territories are in a critical state," said Amr Moussa, the Egyptian Foreign Minister. He added: "Arabs have chosen the path of peace and they will stick to it, but it will have to be a peace that is just and balanced and based on implementing the principles agreed upon in [the 1991] Madrid [peace conference] and the Oslo accord."

Israel has arrested 170 Palestinians in the occupied territories while Israelis wait to see if there will be further bombs. The fact that three bombers took part in the last attack shows that Hamas is not short of volunteers willing to blow themselves up. Fearing further suicide attacks few Israelis boarded buses during rush hour yesterday, though there are soldiers at every bus stop. Tourism, the largest industry in Jerusalem, has been badly damaged and most restaurants have empty tables and hotels empty rooms.

Mr Arafat says the attacks are orchestrated from outside the country, by which he means the Hamas leadership living abroad, but with control over some Hamas cells on the West Bank. In Jordan, security forces have arrested Ibrahim Goshe, the Hamas spokesman, who has advocated more bombings.

Summarising the Palestinian leader's dilemma, Ziyad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian legislature and a specialist on Hamas, said: "If he cracks down on militants, he risks his popularity, and if doesn't, the US and Israel could decide to dispose of him."

Although confident that he will face little pressure from the US to make concessions, Mr Netanyahu appears to be at a loss about how to stop the suicide bombing and the drain of casualties in Lebanon. Hizbollah guerrillas killed another Israeli soldier yesterday in an attack on a position in the Israeli occupation zone, bringing to 31 the number of Israeli troops killed in combat this year, in addition to the 73 paratroopers who died when two helicopters collided.

The losses have led to renewed calls in Israel for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Even Ariel Sharon, the general who led the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, wrote in the daily Yediot Aharanot that one option was for Israel "to leave south Lebanon, according to a decision, plan and timetable of our own ... without any tie to talks with Syria, and without paying any diplomatic or security price to Syria in exchange for our pain in Lebanon."

Mystery still surrounds the circumstances in which a 16-member unit of Israeli naval commandos was ambushed between Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon early last Friday morning. Ten were killed, one is missing and four were wounded, one seriously. Only one commando survived unwounded to call in helicopters for evacuation during which Major Dagesh Maher, a doctor in the rescue unit, was also killed.

The Israeli press speculated yesterday about whether or not Hizbollah knew the commandos were coming, allowing them to place a bomb which killed many of the soldiers early on in the engagement. Hizbollah says the raiding party was detected as it came ashore. Third Petty Officer Itamar Ilya is still missing, presumed dead.

Mr Netanyahu has not put forward any new policies to stem the suicide bombings in Israel or the fighting in Lebanon. If both continue then he may start to pay a political price. "Palestinian terrorists have become so sophisticated that after a month of intensive investigation, we know nothing about them," wrote Hemi Shalev, a commentator in the daily Ma'ariv.

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