It was no coincidence that the terror attack Tuesday in which four Israelis were ambushed in the West Bank and shot dead at point-blank range in their car occurred just two days before direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were to begin in Washington after a 20-month hiatus.
That was the view of Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, moments after news of the slayings flashed across Israeli newspaper websites.
“The terror attack is exactly what we feared most,” Peled told about 200 journalists in a conference call arranged by the Israel Project, a nonprofit group devoted to educating the press about Israel. “In the absence of talks, all the extremist elements spare no effort to undermine efforts for reconciliation.”
The ambush occurred at about 7:30 p.m. when gunmen opened fire on a car carrying two men in their 40s and two slightly younger women, one of whom was pregnant. The car was near the entrance of Kiryat Arba, a West Bank settlement near Hebron. Initial reports said that after shooting each occupant, gunmen approached the stopped car and pumped additional bullets into each victim from just inches away. All four were residents of the West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai in the southern Hebron Hills.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted as calling the attack “serious and difficult,” and pledged to do everything possible to apprehend the terrorists.
“Israel will not allow any terrorist to raise his head, and will make the killers and those who sent them pay,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was briefed on the attack by phone while flying to Washington for Thursday’s dinner meeting at the White House and Friday’s face-to-face talks at the State Department with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Peled said the attack “impacts but shouldn’t derail the talks.”
“This terrible attack is a clear sign that it is imperative to make sure that unless Israel’s security is addressed, it is going to be difficult to have a [Palestinian] state” in the West Bank, he said. “The timing of this [attack] is deliberate — to try to derail the Palestinians and all those who seek peace in the region from coming and making peace with Israel.”
Peled stressed that Israel was coming to the peace talks “with no preconditions” but that it needed agreement on three key issues. He said that just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian people and a Palestinian state, so must the Palestinians “recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people.” It must, he said, “accept Israel as a fact on the ground and not something that should be addressed” in the future.
He said an agreement must also signal a “final end to the conflict — an end to all claims on Israel.”
And Peled said it must also resolve all issues of Israeli security and settlements.
“We need to be assured that the West Bank will not become a repetition of what happened in Lebanon and Gaza after Israel withdrew from those areas,” he said, alluding to their use as terrorist base camps.
“The greater we feel that our security is being addressed, the greater we can deal with borders and settlements,” Peled said. “This is a moment of opportunity and a reason for some kind of optimism. … [President Barack] Obama is committed to the peace process and the Israeli government is stable and strong. We believe this is conducive to reaching an agreement between the two sides. There is no reason why the two leaders cannot achieve it.”
Until Tuesday’s terrorist attack, Peled said that both Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had been able to demonstrate “better control over the security situation in the West Bank,” which he said had translated into growth and economic prosperity for Palestinian residents.
“They have had support from the Arab League, Egypt and Jordan,” he said. “This has been one of the quietest years Israel has known in 62 years.”
One day before the terror attack, Robert Danin, a former deputy to Tony Blair, the former British prime minister Middle East representative of the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and the European Union), said the agenda for the talks would be discussed at Friday’s meeting.
Danin, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a conference call that he believes success in the talks would be best achieved if all issues were discussed at once rather than incrementally to allow the parties to “make tradeoffs between issues.”
“So with the issue of Jerusalem, there may be one solution that leans towards one side and the issue of refugees may play off the other side,” he explained. “That would allow them to get over any impasse.”
Danin said that by hosting the two sides at a dinner Thursday and then allowing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to host Abbas and Netanyahu at the State Department for Friday’s direct talks, Obama “was not expending presidential capital at the beginning. There is an expectation that at some point the president will have to roll up his sleeve” and become engaged in the talks.
Peled said the U.S. plans to sit back initially and let the two sides negotiate with each other. Only at a later stage, he said, “if the two sides cannot move forward, does the [Obama] administration plan to be more active and bring to the table bridging proposals.”
“This administration is committed to play the role of an honest broker,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it is up to both sides to sit down and hammer out their differences; we believe that can be achieved.”