The late February suicide bombing in Tel Aviv shattered a three-month lull in terror and brought key Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking issues into sharp relief.
The terror attack, which came just three weeks after Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared an end to more than four years of hostilities, forced both sides to define their new relationship more clearly.
It enabled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to clarify his policy toward the Palestinians, finger Syria and the Hezbollah as potential spoilers, and re-emphasize his view that there can be no real peacemaking until the Palestinians dismantle their armed terrorists.
It also highlighted Israel's vulnerability to suicide terror attacks and rekindled the debate on the security fence.
Lastly, it underlined the core Palestinian dilemma: How to stop rogue terrorist cells from subverting the peace process without actually taking them on. Israeli military intelligence traced the orders for the attack to the Damascus headquarters of the radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which has dozens of agents on the West Bank, also was said to be implicated. According to military intelligence, the Jihad in Syria used Hezbollah channels in Lebanon to convey instructions to Hezbollah agents in the West Bank, who, in turn, operated a small Jihad cell in the West Bank town of Tulkarm.
In a pre-bombing video, the bomber identified himself as a Tulkarm-based Jihad operative. A few days later, Israeli forces found and dismantled a huge car bomb between Tulkarm and Jenin. Again Islamic Jihad in Damascus was said to be behind the planning, with the Tulkarm cell responsible for the actual operation on the ground.
The new terror, clearly designed to scuttle the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process, left Israeli policy planners in a quandary.
If they retaliated with military might they could play into the terrorists' hands and destroy the fragile process. And if they waited for the Palestinians to act, things could get badly out of hand. Instead, they appealed to the international community to limit the spoilers' room for maneuver and put pressure on the Palestinians.
On Monday, Israel's Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors of countries on the U.N. Security Council and in the European Union for a briefing. Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, head of research in military intelligence, explained the Syrian, Hezbollah and Jihad involvement.
The Foreign Ministry's director-general, Ron Prosor, said the Hezbollah and Jihad were trying to undermine the cease-fire agreement Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had reached with the terrorists. And Syria was to blame for allowing the Jihad offices to operate on its territory, he said.
Late Monday, Feb. 28, the U.N. Security Council condemned the Feb. 25 attack "in the strongest possible terms." Noting in its statement to the media that the Palestinian leadership also had condemned the attack, the council urged the Palestinian leadership to "take immediate, credible steps to find those responsible for this terrorist attack and bring them to justice and encourage further and sustained action to prevent other acts of terrorism."
Clearly feeling the heat, Syria, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad all vigorously denied the charges.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, already under massive international pressure to pull his troops out of Lebanon, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, "It is a pointlessly offensive accusation. Syria had nothing to do with it."
Hezbollah officials dismissed the Israeli charges as "beneath contempt." And Islamic Jihad's Gaza chief, Mohammed al-Hindi, claimed the bombing was the work of a rogue cell acting on its own.
"The Islamic Jihad's policy has not changed. We are still committed to the period of calm we agreed with Abu Mazen," he declared, using the popular name for Abbas.
Israel also sought to apply pressure directly on Abbas's new Palestinian leadership.
Sharon himself took the lead, warning that the new diplomatic process would get absolutely nowhere unless the Palestinian Authority confronted the terrorists and disarmed them.
"While Israel is interested in advancing toward a settlement with the Palestinians, there will be no diplomatic progress, no progress until the Palestinians take strong action to eliminate the terrorist organizations and their infrastructure," he told a meeting of Likud Party members.
"Israel," he warned darkly, "will not compromise over the security of its citizens."
Sharon has no wish to be caught in a situation where Palestinian rogue organizations carry out terror and Israel can't respond because of its concern for the peace process. And the subtext of his message was that if terror continues, Israel will take military action, even if that means sacrificing the chance for peace.
Meanwhile, Israel is exploring other options.
By far the strongest lever it has is the release of Palestinian prisoners. Writing in the mass circulation daily Ma'ariv, columnist Ben Dror Yemini argued that Israel shouldn't stop the political process or its disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, "because that is just what the terrorists want."
Instead, it should make the rate of prisoner release dependent on the degree of terror.
"Release the prisoners gradually -- 20 at the end of every quiet month," he wrote. "Every violation of the cease-fire will lead to a suspension of the releases for a period of time that Israel alone will decide. "
The bombing also highlighted the fact that the government has completed the construction of only one-third of the security fence designed to keep the bombers out.
Even if there is progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians, politicians and pundits argued that Israel should rely on its own devices to keep the bombers out -- devices like the fence. So far, only some 132 miles of the planned 372-mile route are in place.
On the Palestinian side, Abbas, in the short time he has been in power, has made some positive security moves. He has appointed a new interior minister, who is charged with enforcing the cease-fire, and warned a group of new military commanders that they would be sacked if violence isn't stopped.
As for moves on the ground, Palestinian forces have closed down 12 arms-smuggling tunnels in Gaza and arrested six Jihad terrorists.
But the bottom line is that so far there is no sign of any willingness to actually dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. That could be fatal for the peace process.
If the terror continues and Abbas does nothing about the terrorists, the process will die. It could die, too, even if there is quiet, and Sharon continues to demand dismantling of the terrorist groups as a condition for progress in peacemaking.
Which leads to what is perhaps the most important question of all: What will the American position be a few months down the road, if there is quiet -- or relative quiet -- but the terrorists remain intact?
Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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