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Israel, Palestinians Slouch Toward Summit

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Mutual defiance between Israeli and Palestinian leaders is prolonging the crisis that has shaken the Mideast peace process, as both sides are now pressing for political advantage after nearly a week of lethal clashes.

Although the violence began to ease over the weekend at dozens of flash points - where battles between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli soldiers left nearly 70 dead and hundreds wounded - Israel's actions yesterday may further infuriate Palestinians. Most notably, Israel reopened the tourist tunnel in Jerusalem that last week triggered the violence.

Despite angry rhetoric from both sides, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat bowed to American and international pressure and agreed to meet early this week in Washington. That it took five days for the two men to decide to meet highlights the political stakes involved and the gains each hopes to win.

Before Israel moved secretly last week to open the disputed tunnel - close to one of Islam's holiest sites - Israeli intelligence analysts had warned it would provoke bloodshed at a time of extreme tension between Arab and Jew, but few predicted Palestinian discontent was ready to burn so ferociously.

At the peak of the fighting on Thursday, Palestinian police armed under a self-rule agreement engaged Israeli forces in sustained gun battles. The Israelis deployed tanks and helicopters for the first time since 1967 to quell the unrest.

Yesterday, the prime minister's office suggested that disarming the Palestinian police is an option. Israel also increased its military deployments to seal off and control Palestinian towns in the West Bank. Military officials say that during "Operation Field of Thorns" they will "use any means we have to" to defend Israeli lives.

The peace process - begun five years ago under US auspices and stalled since the election last May of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - is now described in the past tense.

The view from the trenches of the renewed conflict is one of open, from-the-gut hostility toward what Palestinians see as an uncompromising Israeli leader whose wish is to deprive them of their rights and their land.


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