SUNDAY'S attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Egypt has threatened to undermine the delicate process of Middle East peacemaking at a critical moment. The assault by masked Egyptian extremists that left 10 Israelis dead and 17 wounded has dimmed prospects for a meeting between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Israel, and the United States, which had been expected as early as next weekend. The trilateral meeting would have laid the groundwork for historic talks between Israelis and Palestinians on the future status of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The bus attack has also strengthened the hand of right-wing Israeli politicians, including key figures in the governing Likud party, who are opposed to negotiating away any Israeli rights over the two territories.
``Theoretically this should have no effect on the peace process, since there were no PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] fingerprints [on the bus attack],'' comments a Western diplomat in Israel. ``But it adds to the general paranoia that the Likud has called on whenever it wants to slow down movement on the peace process.''
``Such events don't strengthen the position of moderates,'' adds an Israeli official who predicts that public outrage over the attack will stall progress on the peace process, at least temporarily.
Masked gunmen raked the bus, which was on its way to Cairo, with machine-gun fire and hurled grenades at it.
Another victim of Sunday's attack is Israeli-Egyptian relations, which are also likely to suffer a temporary setback.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has played a key role in attempting to bring the PLO into the peace process. But the attack has unleashed strong criticism by right-wing Israeli politicians who yesterday accused Egypt of laxity in providing security for Israelis in Egypt.
Trade Minister Ariel Sharon accused Egypt of ``creating an atmosphere of incitement and hatred against Israel. Egypt is not contributing to peace,'' Mr. Sharon said.
Leaders of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud party yesterday announced that a crucial meeting of the party's central committee, scheduled for tomorrow, was being postponed because of Sunday's terrorist attack. The meeting was being billed in advance as a showdown between Mr. Shamir and party rebels, led by Sharon, who are opposed to the government's current peace initiative.
US Secretary of State James Baker III has been seeking a meeting with the foreign ministers of Israel and Egypt to arrange the first-ever talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Cairo.
In an interview just prior to the bus attack, a senior Egyptian official told the Jerusalem Post that the meeting could be convened as early as next weekend, because of indications from the PLO that it would be willing to allow Egypt to announce the Palestinians delegation to the Cairo talks. The concession is important to Israel, which refuses to negotiate directly with the PLO.
In return, Israel will be urged to buy into a compromise formula in which the delegation would include two Palestinians deported by Israel but not convicted of crimes against Israel. The compromise would give the PLO the indirect role needed to bring it into the peace process.
The delegation would also include two residents of East Jerusalem who hold property elsewhere in the territories - a face-saving device necessitated by the fact that Palestinians regard East Jerusalem as part of the West Bank.
But analysts say that Shamir's appetite for making concessions, small to begin with, is likely to be further diminished by Sunday's attack.
In the run-up to the now-postponed Likud party conference, Shamir has courted party conservatives. He has staked out hard-line positions on the makeup of the Palestinian delegation, refusing even to include local Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini in any future peace dialogue.
In tough new remarks yesterday on government-run Israel Radio, Shamir insisted there could be no Middle East peace until all terrorism was eradicated.
Meanwhile, even though responsibility for the attack has been claimed by a radical Palestinian faction opposed to the recent peace moves by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, Sharon told the Reuters news agency on Sunday that the incident was proof that ``there is no change in the attitude of the PLO terrorist organizations.'' An Egyptian extremist group has also claimed responsibility.
The renegade Likud ministers believe Shamir's May 14 peace plan last year, which calls for the election of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians to participate in peace talks with Israel, will lead to the end of Israel's control over the occupied territories. At the meeting, they will seek to tie Shamir's hands with restrictive amendments, in the process registering a de facto vote of no-confidence in Shamir's leadership.
``For the peace process, this is going to be bad news,'' says an Israeli analyst who says that binding resolutions will eliminate the maneuvering room needed to make diplomacy work.
``The subtleties will be taken out of the peace process; it's going to make it impossible to move forward,'' says the analyst.
Likud party conservatives have already capitalized on Shamir's failure to gain air-tight assurances from the US that Israel would not be forced eventually to talk directly to the PLO. The matter was clouded when the US secretary of state said recently that Israel would not be expected to talk to the PLO ``as part of the present effort.''