JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel decided Friday to maintain a shaky truce and go ahead with top-level talks despite a deadly Palestinian attack, bending to U.S. desires to contain Mideast violence as it builds an anti-terror coalition, an official said.
The attack Thursday in the West Bank left an Israeli woman dead, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon summoned a closed meeting of his security Cabinet to discuss a response. However, no steps were approved, the Israeli official said, requesting anonymity.
After the meeting, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the United States is pressing hard for a meeting between him and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a step toward defusing violence.
Responding to Cabinet hard-liners opposed to such a meeting, Peres said in a statement: ``In the 53 years of Israel's existence, there has not been a single Israeli request that was not accepted by the United States and now the United States is asking us to hold meetings with Palestinians.''
Calm in the Middle East is seen as crucial for Washington's efforts to bring Arab and Muslim states into an international coalition that would support retaliation for last week's terror attacks in the United States.
Arafat declared a cease-fire on Tuesday, and Israel responded with a pledge not to initiate military actions or hit back for Palestinian attacks. The truce was shaken, though, when the Israeli woman was killed and her husband gravely wounded in front of their three small children Thursday in a drive-by shooting.
At the Cabinet meeting that followed, Israeli security commanders told the Cabinet ministers that Arafat intended the cease-fire only for Israel proper and was taking no steps to stop attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli official said. They listed dozens of gunfire and grenade attacks since Tuesday, most of them aimed at army outposts and vehicles.
The Israeli official said the distinction is unacceptable, and Israel insists on a cease-fire everywhere.
Also Friday, Israel radio said Palestinian security released two men detained for questioning in connection with the fatal West Bank shooting. Palestinian security officials, requesting anonymity, said the investigation continues, but would not say whether the two are still in custody.
Arafat promised the United States that he would arrest the gunmen, according to a U.S. source who spoke on condition of anonymity. The source said Arafat might have to arrest some of his own people and make changes in his command structure if he is to persuade the United States that he is serious about keeping the cease-fire.
Elsewhere, officials on both sides said a planned meeting between Peres and Arafat has been put off until next week. Sharon has demanded 48 hours without violence before the meeting can take place, and officials said the clock keeps being reset by attacks like the West Bank shooting.
Meeting late Thursday, the Palestinian Cabinet issued a statement expressing commitment to the cease-fire and complaining that Israel has not reciprocated by lifting roadblocks and restrictions that have crippled the Palestinian economy during nearly a year of fighting.