THE fragile Middle East peace process has been plunged back into crisis by a gruesome terrorist attack in Tel Aviv. It came six days before President Clinton is due to visit Israel and Jordan to seal an accord between the neighboring countries and bolster peace moves in the region.
The bomb attack, which occurred early yesterday on a commuter bus in the heart of Tel Aviv, killed at least 22 people and injured more than 40, making it one of the worst such attacks in the country's history.
Hamas, the extreme Islamic Resistance Movement that last week kidnapped and later killed an Israeli soldier, claimed responsibility for the attack in an anonymous telephone call to Israeli radio.
The blast comes as another setback in efforts to implement the year-old peace accord between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, which seeks to grant Palestinians self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank and, ultimately, resolve the status of Jerusalem.
It could also further weaken beleaguered PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who is struggling to contain a challenge by Hamas to undermine his leadership and wreck the Israel-PLO accord.
Mr. Arafat is struggling to unite Palestinians behind his efforts to secure autonomy from Israel, but is increasingly criticized by his own people as a proxy for Israel, cracking down on extremists in the autonomy zones.
The terror attack also comes at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is battling to convince Israelis that the accord with the PLO will have long-term benefits that outweigh the rapidly deteriorating security situation.
Mr. Rabin's precarious majority in the Labour coalition is undergoing threats from the opposition Likud Party, which accuses him of putting PLO interests ahead of Israeli security.
The bomb exploded as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were sitting down in Cairo to resume negotiations suspended last week following the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas.
In the Gaza Strip, identified by Rabin as a springboard for Hamas terror attacks, loudspeakers at mosques in Gaza City were proclaiming Hamas responsibility within an hour and a half of the explosion. Supporters of Hamas portrayed the bomb blast as a necessary and inevitable part of their continuing struggle against Israel. Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist.
Rabin, who cut short a visit to London when he heard about the attack, blamed ``extremist Islamic terrorist groups'' bent on thwarting Middle East peace moves. The Israeli government responded by sealing off the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The PLO strongly condemned the attack, saying it was directed against both Israelis and Palestinians. ``It is an attempt to explode not only innocent people, but the peace process as a whole,'' said Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabo. ``The answer to such incidents is to continue the peace process. This will enable us to put an end to such crimes.''
The bomb sent fragments of the bus and its occupants in all directions. ``Terrorism is escalating just at the point of a breakthrough in Israeli-Jordanian relations. It is a desperate attempt by Hamas to prevent the agreement being signed,'' an Israeli official told the Monitor.
Tel Aviv's mayor, Roni Milo, captured the mood of a shattered Israeli nation, which has been trapped on an emotional roller-coaster in the past 10 days with a series of terror attacks and peace breakthroughs. ``I feel like crying,'' he told an Israeli television reporter, as police stood around in tears. ``This is a terrible shock to all of us. We have to disengage from Gaza. Let them [Palestinians] live their lives, and we will live ours,'' Mr. Milo said.
Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing opposition Likud Party, said the government closing Gaza again ``was too little, too late.
``I warned the prime minister that this would happen, but Rabin seems to put Arafat's interests and the welfare of Gaza above the interests of the Israeli people,'' he said.
THE attack also came as Israeli and Jordanian negotiators were meeting in the Jordanian port of Aqaba to iron out details of the accord between them.
The Israel-Jordan accord, which settles the land dispute between the two countries by Jordan leasing back land occupied by Israeli settlers, has raised the political temperature in the region and drawn sharp criticism from both Arafat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Arafat described the accord as an ``outrageous infringement'' of the Israeli-PLO peace accord. He is angered because he was not consulted before the initialing of an Israel-Jordan accord Monday and because Jordan has been accorded the role of supervising Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
The Syrian leader, responding to Israeli attempts to project the accord with Jordan as a model of dealing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Syria, rejected a similar solution for his country.
``It is apostasy for anyone to speak of a nation leasing its land,'' Mr. Assad said.
There is speculation in diplomatic circles that Mr. Clinton, the first president to visit the Middle East since former President Carter sealed Egypt's agreement with Israel 15 years ago, could meet with Assad during his Middle East tour next week. At this time, Clinton has no plans to meet with Arafat, and Palestinian officials have not been invited to the signing ceremony.