JERUSALEM — Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk sharply criticized both sides in the Mideast conflict, saying Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has never forsworn violence and that the Israelis have undermined peace efforts by consistently expanding Jewish settlements.
In interviews published and broadcast by Israeli media Wednesday, the ambassador also said he did not envision a comprehensive political settlement in the near future. He suggested the sides work for a phased agreement that would attempt to solve some issues now, and leave for later the thorniest issues such as the status of Jerusalem and fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Indyk, who leaves his post within days, has been a key figure in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during four years as U.S. ambassador to Israel. In unusually blunt comments, Indyk told The Jerusalem Post he did not believe Arafat "ever really gave up violence as a tool to achieving his objectives."
Israel says that Arafat has failed to arrest Palestinian militants and that members of his security forces have also systematically participated in attacks during the more than nine months of violence.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv was closed Wednesday for Independence Day, but an official confirmed the comments by the ambassador.
In an interview with Israeli television set for broadcast Wednesday evening, Indyk also criticized the Israelis for continuing to build up Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, lands the Palestinians are seeking for a future state.
The 200,000 Jewish settlers in the territories are almost double the number that were present when Israel and Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization began peace negotiations in 1993.
Indyk said the actions by both sides contributed to undermining the peace efforts, now on hold indefinitely due to the fighting that has claimed more than 600 lives over the past nine months.
The United States has been the main mediator throughout the peace talks and brokered a cease-fire declared June 13. However, daily violence has prevented the agreement from fully taking hold and both sides warn it is in danger of collapse.
Indyk's comments suggested a measure of U.S. exasperation with both sides.
Former President Clinton devoted much time in search of a Mideast settlement. President Bush had sought to take a more hands-off approach, but his administration has also been active recently.
CIA Director George Tenet mediated the cease-fire, and Secretary of State Colin Powell was in the region last week in an attempt to solidify the truce.
In violence Wednesday, 27-year-old Palestinian activist Falah Natche was shot in the abdomen and wounded in the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian witnesses said.
It was not immediately clear who shot Natche. The Palestinians said they believed the shooting was carried out by the Israeli security forces. The Israeli army said it had no knowledge of the shooting.
On Wednesday, Israel's security cabinet decided to maintain the policy of targeting suspected Palestinian militants. Some hard-line ministers argued for stepping up military actions, while the dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel would not abandon the cease-fire agreement.
"We continue to be committed (to the truce), but we will not stop for one day, or even one hour, in the fight against terrorism," said Ephraim Sneh, the Transportation Minister.
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the number of killings depends on Palestinian efforts to stop attacks. "The less they do, the more we have to do," he said. But he said there was no decision to step up the targeted killings.
The Palestinians denounced the Israeli policy.
"If a cease-fire is to have any meaning, Sharon cannot insist on Israel's unilateral right to commit murder," said Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. "It is time that the world recognize that Sharon, who has no desire to negotiate peace, can only survive in an atmosphere of war.
The U.S. State Department called again Tuesday for an end to the targeted killings. "We think this policy is not right and we've said that many times," spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.