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Israel, PLO Agree: Bombing Won't Stop Peace Drive

REACTION to Monday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which took five Israeli lives, suggests momentum for expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank may be unstoppable.

''It's a critical point,'' says political scientist Ze'ev Maoz of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center of Strategic Studies. ''I think you could say that the talks have reached a point of no return for this stage of the [PLO-Israeli] agreement.''

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The two sides showed a common interest in avoiding reprisals or in suspending negotiations for long - a qualitative change from reactions to previous suicide bombings by militant Islamists, diplomats and analyst point out.

Also missing from this latest violence is a formal claim of responsibility for the attack by an Islamic group, a recorded video released of the suicide bomber, and vigils or rejoicing in Gaza or in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Security experts say that the nature and timing of the attack - and the absence of any Islamic militant group taking responsibility - bolsters speculation that the attack was carried out by a splinter group of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which opposes the peace process.

The Islamic groups have been observing an unofficial moratorium on attacking Israeli civilians for the past few months following talks with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA).

But analysts say there is a division within their ranks over whether to temporarily suspend armed actions to allow for the partial withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the West Bank - a key sticking point in the present talks.

Mr. Arafat, also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), branded the perpetrators as ''terrorists'' and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin jointly praised Israeli and Palestinian security efforts for the six months of relative calm that preceded Monday's bombing.

Mr. Rabin insisted there is ''no alternative'' to continuing the talks. ''It is cruel and painful, but we will continue the negotiations,'' he said.

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Arafat described the bombing as an ''attempt to sabotage the talks and the peace process'' but expressed optimism that the remaining obstacles in the Israel-PLO talks could soon be resolved.

''Both leaders perceive that stopping the talks at this stage would cause more damage than continuing and concluding them,'' says Professor Maoz.

''Both parties have reached a stage where they cannot go back and they realize that there is a high degree of interdependence between domestic and foreign policy,'' Maoz continues. ''They perceive that they need to support each other and to minimize any actions which could give the supporters of the other a pretext for exerting pressure to call off the talks.''

In an unprecedented move, 250 Palestinian prisoners belonging mainly to Arafat's dominant PLO faction, Fatah, issued a statement condemning the attack as an attempt to ''murder'' the peace talks. The PLO office in Gaza also condemned the perpetrators as ''peace destroyers.''

Negotiators from both sides, involved in detailed talks over the scope of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the allocation of water resources, insisted that talks should continue after a temporary suspension to allow for funerals of the Israeli victims to take place.

Western diplomats said that the bomb attack would inevitably slow the talks by a few days and could delay the planned release of Palestinian prisoners.

But they noted that both Israelis and Palestinians wanted the interim deal to be concluded. ''The Palestinians have invested much in this process and they want to see results,'' says one Western diplomat.

Calls for suspending talks came from the right-wing opposition Likud Party and Israeli President Ezer Weizman. But, for the first time, the ruling Labor Party coalition publicly criticized President Weizman for his statements.

The attack in Tel Aviv came the day before the date set by negotiators for an agreement to extend Palestinian self-rule and hold Palestinian elections three to four months later. But it had been clear for the past week that the deadline would not be met and that talks could still continue.

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