Jerusalem — Israel is in a dilemma over how to respond to the Arab terrorist attacks on El Al Israel Airlines passengers in Rome and Vienna Friday. Israel is feeling increasingly hemmed in, both politically and militarily. The attacks came hard on the heels of Syria's redeployment of anti-aircraft missiles in Lebanon. In addition, Israel's range of responses appears to have been drastically reduced because the group behind the attacks yet to be positively identified.
Israel's policy predicament has been further complicated by messages from the United States urging restraint and warning against the serious damage an unmeasured response to the attacks would cause to the fragile Middle East peace process.
A senior Israeli official said that notwithstanding the US concern, ``we don't need a green light . . . it remains an Israeli decision.''
Israel's complications were evident in yesterday's Cabinet meeting. Army Chief of Staff Moshe Levy and Air Force Commander Amos Lapidot were called to participate, in an apparent effort to brainstorm a response which would be effective, but not politically disastrous or militarily risky.
On one level, analysts say, Israel's reponse is limited by the shadowy nature of the airport attackers. At time of writing, observers speculated that the Palestinian attackers were affiliated with a break-away PLO faction headed by Abu Nidal, which claimed reponsibility for the attacks. However, other observers said that the attackers belonged to the mainstream Al-Fatah group in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
``It's a complete fog,'' said Emmanuel Sivan, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. ``It could have been a small outside splinter group trying to assert its viability and embarrass the mainstream PLO line, which is tied to Jordan and the peace process, or it could have been a small group within the PLO which would be a test of [chairman] Yasser Arafat's control.''
Other anaylsts say the attacks were mounted by groups that are opposed to a politcal settlement with Israel, in an attempt to turn public opinion against any Palestinian participation in the peace process.
If the attackers indeed came from the Abu Nidal group, as many analysts here believe, the organization's small numbers and tiny bases dispersed in Syria, Lebanon, and Libya, would prove difficult targets to hit, the analysts say. They note that a repeat of the Oct. 1 Isreali air strike on PLO headquarters in Tunis would be virtually impossible.
That would leave Israel with the difficult alternative of a personal attack on Abu Nidal himself. Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University expert on international terrorism, says, ``Abu Nidal is a person; as a person he is as bullet-proof as his victims.''
Another possibility would be to strike at Abu Nidal's main supporters, Syria and Libya, but such a move would have grave political consequences and risk full-scale war.
The movement of Syrian Soviet-made SAM-2 and SAM-6 ground-to-air missiles into Lebanon has further restricted any contemplated retaliatory air strikes against Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon.
The missiles were deployed after Israel downed two Syrian Soviet-made fighter jets Nov. 19. The Israelis have said that the missiles threaten their reconnaissance flights over Lebanon and the missile crisis has been aggravated by Friday's airport attacks.
Israel could wipe out the misslies if diplomatic efforts to remove them fail, but analysts say that would risk a full-scale military confrontation with Syria.
Yehoshua Saguy, former head of military intelligence, says the decision is between bad and worse. ``It's a real problem,'' he said in a recent radio interview.
``The gauntlet has been thrown down to Israel. On the one hand it is impossible to conduct business as usual without dealing with what happened, or we can restrain ourselves, on the assumption that matters can only get worse.
``The Syrian movement of missiles into Lebanon is a message to Israel to get it's hands off Lebanon. Whoever decides on restraint will have to face a situation in which matters will grow progressively worse. The second path, of confrontation, will have no less serious consequences,'' Mr. Saguy said.
Israeli officials said yesterday they were ``collecting information'' on the airport attackers, apparently hoping that better knowledge of the enemy would make decision on a response easier.
``I am sure our intelligence will be able to discover who is responsible, and the perpetrators responsible will be punished,'' said Communications Minister Amnon Rubinstein after the cabinet meeting.
But despite the implicit trust in a military response -- prevalent throughout the Israeli spectrum -- lingering doubts remain.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in a speech in Jerusalem, served a reminder that a military response without a political solution could not resolve the issues which led to the killings in Rome and Vienna.
``Terrorism,'' he said, ``cannot be eliminated once and for all, uprooted, by military means alone.''