Holiday festivites dashed along with hope of resolution

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah urged the Arab world Wednesday to seek peace with Israel, but his historic speech at a meeting of Arab leaders was drowned out by a lone suicide bomber who turned a celebratory Passover dinner into a scene of bloody carnage.

The deadly attack at a resort hotel in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya killed at least 19 Israelis, dashed hopes for a Middle East breakthrough, left U.S. mediation efforts in tatters and raised fears of more violence during the Passover-Easter weekend.

The Iranian-backed militant Islamic group Hamas, which opposes negotiations with Israel, claimed responsibility for the attack and promised more killing. Furious Israeli officials hinted at a massive retaliation. Some spoke in biblical terms, noting that the attack occurred at the start of a holiday celebrating the Israeli exodus from enslavement under Egyptian pharaohs.

“We’re seeing that the same pharaohs of 4,000 years ago are trying again to destroy the Israeli people. It won’t happen,” Raanan Gissin, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN. “We’re not going to live with terrorists attacking us every day.”

President Bush demanded action by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to prevent more attacks.

“This callous, this cold-blooded killing, it must stop,” Bush said.

The violent turn of events increased the pressure on Bush to take a more active role in the Middle East. American, Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed that U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni has hit an impasse in his efforts to broker a cease-fire.

“The Bush administration has assumed up until now that its best option is simply to manage the Arab-Israeli conflict, not to try to resolve it,” said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. “Either we have a serious political push that is ambitious, that tries to resolve some of the core issues, or we are on the verge of a horrible new escalation that will have consequences for the entire region.”The suicide bombing also dimmed chances that the gathering of Arab leaders in Beirut, Lebanon, would present an opening for peace.

Hopes for a breakthrough began to fade even before the meeting convened, when Israel refused to let Arafat attend the gathering and two other leaders – President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Jordan’s King Abdullah II – decided to stay home. All three had endorsed the Saudi peace plan when Crown Prince Abdullah floated it last month.

In formally presenting his proposal to Arab leaders at the meeting, the Saudi leader toughened the terms by insisting that Israel permit the return of Palestinian refugees, including the descendants of those who fled decades ago – a proposal that Israel adamantly opposes.

Delegates were expected to endorse the proposal before adjourning Thursday, but it was not likely to bring peace anytime soon.

Even so, the Saudi leader’s willingness to call for “normal relations” with Israel at an Arab meeting – traditionally a forum for Israel-bashing – was widely viewed as a historic shift.

Addressing his comments directly to the Israeli people, Abdullah promised to accept “the Israeli people’s right to live in security with the rest of the people of the region” if the Israeli government meets his terms for peace. He called on Israel to fully withdraw from all occupied territories, permit the return of refugees and agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian country with East Jerusalem as its capital.

In a meeting sideshow, Palestinian delegates stormed out because their absent leader didn’t get a prime spot on the agenda for his televised speech to the gathering. Organizers said they did not want to carry the speech live for fear that Israeli officials would interfere with the transmission.