Bombs Versus Peace

THE Middle East peace process faces a critical test: Can it move ahead despite another round of suicide bombings inside Israel?

Last Sunday's attacks, the most murderous yet, resulted in an immediate reimposition of closed borders with the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres vowed a war on the terrorists even as he asserted that peace negotiations would continue.

Yasser Arafat joined in condemning the bombings as terrorism, and his police did some quick rounding up of Hamas activists and sympathizers.

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But the pressures on both men to do more will be great. Mr. Peres is in the anomalous position of having to take actions, such as an indefinite border closing, that contradict his own hopes for a Middle East where commerce can flow freely. The Palestinians, cooped up in their newly self-governing enclaves, will be cut off from jobs and markets in Israel. Tensions could rise.

Yet Peres has little choice. The resumed bombing revives long-held doubts within Israel about his toughness and resolve, and the May 29 elections loom. His Likud opponents know the Hamas atrocities play into their hand. While they are taking care not to exploit the situation politically, polls show a swing in their direction.

Mr. Arafat will be called on to crack down on the Hamas cells that spawn the bombers. And more could undoubtedly be done to root out bombmaking operations. This will be politically difficult for Arafat, but not as difficult as the crises that could arise if the bombings persist.

In practical terms, however, it's hard to see how any immediate military or police steps, by either government, can completely thwart individuals bent on suicide missions. Ultimately, the most effective tactic is to persist in building peace and the more stable political environment that reins in such activity.

Like others addicted to violence (Northern Ireland's IRA comes to mind) Hamas's militants delude themselves. The bomb is not more powerful than the idea of peace. Their goal - a truly sovereign Palestine - will never emerge from chaos and carnage.

The peace process, imperfect though it may be, particularly from the Palestinian perspective, is the only door open to coexistence and future prosperity. The bogus politics of bombs and blood can't be allowed to close it.

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