U.S.-led Middle East inquiry starts upbeat


A U.S.-led commission began investigating 10 weeks of Middle East bloodshed on Monday by praising Israeli and Palestinian officials for their help in trying to bring about an end to the violence.

“We are very pleased that in our initial meetings with representatives of the two sides, both indicated their willingness to cooperate fully with the commission,” said former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, head of the five-man commission.

He spoke to reporters after meeting Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials for three hours on a visit overshadowed by political turmoil in Israel. The five-member team was due later to meet Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

“Our hope is that our work will be helpful to the parties in reducing the level of violence that has claimed so many lives and to help ensure an early return to the negotiating table,” Mitchell said, before heading for Gaza in an armoured convoy.

Underscoring the hardships, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian in the West Bank and another died of injuries, raising to 312 the number of people killed — 261 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 38 soldiers and other Israelis.

Witnesses in Nablus said the soldiers killed a 28-year-old stationery shop owner outside his shop. An Israeli army spokesman said they had fired at a Palestinian who opened fire on an outpost but they were uncertain whether he was killed.

On Sunday, right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu turned Israel’s political establishment on its head by announcing he intended to challenge Barak, the Labor Party prime minister, in an election that will set the course of Middle East peacemaking.

Although he is the front-runner in opinion polls, Netanyahu is barred from standing because of a law that allows only members of parliament to contest a special election for prime minister, which Barak forced by resigning on Sunday.

Netanyahu gave up his parliamentary seat and leadership of the right-wing Likud after his election loss to Barak last year, and his allies struggled on Monday to find a way for him to run.

No date was set for the ballot but it was widely expected to take place on February 6. A new opinion poll for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth showed Netanyahu leading Barak by 52 percent to 32 percent with the rest undecided.

The U.S.-led inquiry went ahead despite the resignation of Barak, who will remain caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.

It is due to present a written report to the U.S. president and U.N. secretary general by the end of March along with comments from the two sides.

Israel and the Palestinians agreed to the creation of the commission at a peace summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in mid October that failed to end the violence.