Israel blamed Syria and the Islamic Jihad for a bloody weekend suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, calling off confidence-building measures but appearing to rule out military retaliation giving a bit more breathing room to a shaky truce with the Palestinians. At a Sunday Cabinet meeting, Israel decided to suspend a plan to turn control of five West Bank towns over to the Palestinians and free 400 more prisoners. Those gestures were agreed on at a summit in Egypt on Feb. 8, where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared a truce. The attack and the Israeli measures underlined the fragility of the truce and its vulnerability to attacks by extremists who oppose any accommodation. A familiar pattern appeared in danger of re-emerging: A truce, a Palestinian attack, Israeli retaliation, another Palestinian attack ultimately the end of the truce and rekindled violence. Israel will not agree to discuss the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan until the Palestinians move against the militants, Sharon told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a phone conversation on Sunday. The plan has been stuck since it was launched in June 2003. Sharon charged that Syria was involved in the suicide bombing that wrecked the front of a Tel Aviv night spot Friday night, killing five Israelis and wounding dozens the first such attack since Abbas took office after a Jan. 9 election. The fifth Israeli died in the hospital Monday of wounds suffered in the bombing. The death brought the number of Israelis killed in 119 Palestinian suicide bombings in four years of fighting to 500. At the beginning of the weekly Sunday Cabinet meeting, Sharon said the Islamic Jihad carried out the bombing on orders from its leaders in Syria. "We know this for certain,"' he said, but held Abbas' Palestinian Authority responsible as well. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom summoned ambassadors from the European Union and member states of the U.N. Security Council to a meeting on Monday, where he said military intelligence would display proof of Syrian involvement in the bombing. The Foreign Ministry said it would not make the proof public. Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible, because the orders came from his country. "He has to decide which world he belongs to the world of terrorism or the world that fights terrorism," Peres told Army Radio. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa denied that Syria was involved in the attack. A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel would not hit back for the bombing. Shin Bet security service head Avi Dichter said Israel's policy now is to put pressure on Abbas to crack down on the violent groups. Sharon told Rice that if Abbas continues efforts to control the militants by persuasion, "terrorism will continue ... and Israel cannot accept that," according to a statement from Sharon's office. It said Rice called on Sunday to offer condolences over the bombing. Sharon said talks on the "road map" could not begin unless there are "active steps against terrorism." Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia dismissed Sharon's warnings. "If Israel wants to cut off contacts with the Palestinians, it will be its own decision and we will not cry," Qureia told reporters. "But we say that there is an opportunity begun in Sharm el-Sheik and we want to develop this effort," referring to the summit. After Friday's attack, Israel froze plans for handing over the five towns because it no longer believes the Palestinian security forces are capable of controlling them. Qureia criticized the decision as "wrong and unacceptable." Israel also put on hold the release of 400 more prisoners, Cabinet minister Tzipi Livni said, noting that their release was contingent on Palestinian moves to halt violence. "Only when we see what happens in the Palestinian Authority will we come back to the (prisoner) issue," she told Israel TV. The prisoner issue is a volatile and emotional one for the Palestinians, who may judge Abbas' performance on his ability to win their freedom. Israel released 500 prisoners a week ago. However, Israel refuses to free prisoners directly involved in violence. Associated Press
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