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Israeli-Palestinian Truce Talks on Hold Again

Israeli-Palestinian truce talks are on hold, and could be put off until next week, after the fatal shooting of an Israeli woman along a West Bank road early Monday. The continued postponement comes amid increasing international pressure for the meeting to take place.

A long-awaited meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had been scheduled for Sunday, but was vetoed at the last minute by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon because of continued violence. Mr. Peres was said to be furious about the decision, and Israeli officials went out of their way to describe the delay as a postponement, not a cancellation. Palestinians accused the Israeli government of finding excuses not to negotiate.

There was talk the Arafat-Peres meeting might take place Monday, but after an Israeli woman was shot and killed in an ambush along the West Bank's Jordan Valley road, the talks have again been put on hold. The militant Islamic Jihad organization claimed responsibility for the attack. A Sharon spokesman said the attack re-set the clock for holding truce talks.

Israel has also established a military buffer zone in the northern West Bank between the Palestinian towns of Jenin and Tulkarem, making it off-limits to all Palestinians, except those with special permits. Israeli officials say the move was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. Mr. Arafat described it as a "dangerous escalation," and Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the closed zone would make life for Palestinians living in the area a "living hell."

Despite the latest developments, Mr. Arafat said Monday he will stick to the truce he has declared. Israeli officials accuse Mr. Arafat of not being serious about a cease-fire. Mr. Sharon says there must 48 hours of calm before any truce talks take place.

The delay in the Arafat-Peres meeting comes amid increasing diplomatic pressure for the talks to take place. The United States is trying to forge an international coalition against terrorism that includes Arab nations, and it does not want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to get in the way of that effort.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has telephoned Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat to urge that the truce talks take place as soon as possible. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, leading a European diplomatic mission here, said the meeting is urgently needed, if there is going to be a de-escalation of the crisis. Austria's foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, on a visit to Syria, also urged that the talks take place.

She said Monday that while the European Union supports the United States in the fight against terrorism, it also believes that the root causes of the problem must be attacked. She said regional conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute should be tackled as part of that fight.

Norway's foreign minister, Thorboern Jagland, has been meeting with Palestinian and Israeli officials here, and described last week's cease-fire declaration by Mr. Arafat as a "very, very important step forward." He said he would urge Israeli officials to follow up by holding formal truce talks. Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, is due to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority next week, and he is likely to deliver a similar message.

Mr. Straw could get a frosty reception from Israeli officials, who have condemned his visit to Iran. They have also sharply criticized his remarks in a commentary published in an Iranian newspaper, in which he said that one of the factors that helps breed terrorism is the anger people in the region feel about the events in the Palestinian territories.

The Arafat-Peres meeting could be put off until next week. Mr. Arafat is due to visit Syria on Tuesday for talks with President Bashar al Assad. Israeli officials will not be able to meet later in the week because of the Yom Kippur holiday, which runs from sundown Wednesday to sundown Thursday.