A DOUBLE suicide-bomb attack yesterday on two Israeli buses has forced the suspension of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the closure of Israel to West Bank workers for what is likely to be a prolonged period.
The attack, which killed more than two-dozen people and wounded 80, also seems likely to undermine the popularity of Israel's dovish Prime Minister Shimon Peres just as he embarks on a campaign for re-election in a vote scheduled for late May.
But it is too soon to tell if the attacks will seriously harm the reelection chances of Mr. Peres, who has been leading his hard-line opponent, Binyamin Netanyahu, by 16 or more points in polls.
The Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon in two anonymous phone calls to Israeli news agencies. The callers said that the attacks were revenge for the Jan. 5 killing of bombmaker Yehiya Ayyash (known as "the engineer"), allegedly by Israeli agents.
Ayyash had masterminded a series of previous suicide-bomb attacks on Israeli buses. The caller noted that the attack also marked the two-year anniversary of the massacre of Palestinian worshippers by a Jewish settler in a Hebron mosque.
Speaking at a press conference, Peres indicated that following a period of mourning, peace talks with the Palestinians would resume. The talks are focused on the planned March withdrawal of Israeli troops from parts of Hebron, the last West Bank city to remain under Israeli rule.
Arafat condemns bombings as 'terrible'
Peres indicated that he would still seek to meet the March deadline, despite angry Israeli public reaction to the attack. "On such a day, we don't have to make decisions. But we have said that we will honor all of the agreements and all of the dates, and there is no change in that," he said.
There were reports, meanwhile, that the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority would crack down further on Islamic extremists operating from the areas under its control.
Peres said that in phone conversations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat the Palestinian leader pledged more concerted action against extremist terror. Mr. Arafat quickly issued a public denunciation of the attack: "It's terrible. I condemn it completely, and I condemn any power behind it. It is not against only civilians but against the peace process, and I am sending my condolences to the families of the victims and to the prime minister."
One of Arafat's senior aides, Mahmoud Abbas, telephoned Israel's state-owned radio station from Tunis to add his denouncement. "We'll take the strongest steps against them," Mr. Abbas said, referring to the Islamic sponsors of the attacks.
Condemnations also came from leaders around the world including President Clinton, Pope John Paul II, and Jordan's King Hussein. "Barbaric acts like this have no place in the civilized world. We strongly condemn it," said Jordan's information minister, Marwan Muasher. Added King Hussein: "These people are our enemies, enemies of peace, and enemies of life."
The Jerusalem bus explosion, in which 23 people were killed, occurred at the peak of rush hour near the city's central bus station in a bus overflowing with commuters. Police said the suicide bomber had activated a bomb containing 22 pounds of explosives.
As ambulances, police, and rescue workers flooded to the site of the Jerusalem attack a second, smaller explosion occurred at a bus stop frequented by Israeli Army recruits in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, killing three people and injuring about 20. Together, the two attacks were the bloodiest in Israel since the late 1970s.
More than 100 people have been killed in the last two years in suicide attacks on Israeli buses staged by Islamic extremists. But there had been a lull in the attacks since August 1995, when the Palestinian Authority reportedly obtained commitments from Islamic leaders to refrain from violence that would interfere with the staged Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank last fall.
Hamas leaders declared an end to the informal policy of restraint following the assassination of Hamas bombmaker Ayyash in January.
Over the past two months, Israel's security services issued repeated warnings that a major attack was expected. Israel closed its gates to West Bank workers for almost two weeks during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and Id al-Fitr in an effort to head off possible attempts.
The attacks occurred just three days after the closure was lifted. Immediately following the attacks, Peres's government came under criticism for repealing the closure just before the second anniversary of the Hebron massacre.
"The Hamas doesn't wait for a date, they wait for an opportunity," responded Israeli Army Chief of Staff Amnon Shahat.
Palestinian officials were reportedly also caught off-guard by the attack. Recently, officials had released a number of key Islamic leaders from detention and permitted the resumption of publication of a Gaza-based newspaper owned by Islamic Jihad, which along with Hamas opposes the peace deal with Israel.
The officials were apparently operating under the assumption that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad would refrain from staging major attacks against Israel so as not to jeopardize the planned handover in Hebron.
Over the long term, it was unclear how seriously the attack would undermine Peres's reelection. Since the November assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres has been leading his right-wing challenger, Mr. Netanyahu, by a relatively wide margin in polls.
Harder-line Likud Party could gain
Netanyahu has pledged to take a much harder line vis-a-vis the Palestinian Liberation Organization in negotiations that are due to begin soon on a permanent Israeli-PLO settlement.
Some of Peres's middle-of-the-road supporters may now switch their support to the more hard-line Netanyahu and his Likud Party, which has been trailing Peres's Labor Party since the public backlash against the November 1995 assassination of Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist.
But the initial reaction from one Israeli who witnessed the attack was support for Peres.
"Ever since the assassination of Rabin, I've been much more left-wing," said teenager Yehudit Nudelman, a religious student who was present at the scene of the attack yesterday morning. "I cried for an hour after this happened. But in my opinion, it shouldn't affect the peace process. There are too many extremists on both sides."