Bombing of Israeli Soldiers Slows Down Pace of Peace

Israeli president wants to reassess Israel's way of handling 'terror'

A SUICIDE bomb attack, which claimed at least 18 Israelis' lives -- mostly soldiers -- and wounded more than 62 others north of Tel Aviv yesterday, threatens to further delay the implementation of the Israeli-PLO peace accord.

Islamic Jihad -- an extremist group that opposes the Israel-PLO peace accord -- claimed responsibility for the blast, which occurred as a divided Israeli Cabinet was discussing a compromise on halting expansion of several large Jewish settlements.

The Jihad boasts it has scores of ''living martyrs'' -- activists prepared to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of creating an Islamic state.

The settlement issue

The expansion of the settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank has become the main obstacle to implementing the next phase of the 16-month-old Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization peace accord.

The accord calls for the redeployment of Israeli soldiers from Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank, the extension of self-rule to Palestinians there, and the holding of Palestinian general elections for a governing authority.

The process has been disrupted by a spate of bomb attacks by Islamic extremists carried out over the past year in apparent reprisal for the massacre of 29 Muslims at prayer by an Israeli settler in the West Bank town of Hebron in February last year.

Since the accord was signed in September 1993, more than 100 Israelis and nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed because of political violence.

The Israeli death toll for 1994 is the highest since the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, unable to show a security dividend for ordinary Israelis from his peace moves, has slowed up the implementation of the accord amid fears in political and diplomatic circles that the Middle East peace process is grinding to a halt.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman yesterday called for a reassessment of Israel's way of handling the threat of ''terror,'' but most Israeli officials conceded that there was little that could be done to prevent suicide bombings.

''In a way it is unavoidable. It is difficult to prevent an action by a suicide bomber. But we do not want to leave our most fateful decisions in the hands of suicide bombers,'' he said after learning of the attack during yesterday's Cabinet meeting.

Hard-line ministers called for Israel to strengthen the Jewish settlements around Jerusalem, and right-wing opposition leaders said the talks with the Palestinians should be called off.

Moderates of the ruling Labor Party said that violent attacks should not be allowed to halt the peace process.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's adviser, Ahmed Tibi, said that the attack was a direct bid to wreck the Israel-PLO peace accord.

''The purpose of the attack is to murder the peace process,'' Mr. Tibi said.

''We must all prevent the enemies of peace from killing the process,'' he added.

The bomb exploded at the busy road junction of Beit Lid near Natanya, a coastal town about 20 miles northeast of Tel Aviv and about six miles from the Israeli occupied West Bank, which is currently the subject of troubled talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Attack site

The site of the blast was also close to an Israeli jail where the ailing founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is serving a life sentence for his role in violent activities.

The latest attack shattered four weeks of relative calm on the security front despite growing Arab-Israeli tension over the expansion of Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.

The Israeli Cabinet decided yesterday to create closer Cabinet oversight of any further building at these settlements in the face of demands from Palestinian groups that implementation of the peace accord should be halted until further development of settlements is frozen.

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