ISRAELI leader Shimon Peres is launching an all-out war on the Islamic terrorist groups, and he is pushing Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to help him rescue the peace process.
"We see these days as a time of war," Mr. Peres told a news conference yesterday. "Even if it hurts, we will fight a war that requires unequivocal measures ... that have to be implemented immediately, in order to destroy this group completely."
Peres faces increasing domestic criticism for failing to protect Israelis from bomb attacks, the latest of which ripped through a bus in the heart of Jerusalem's commercial center yesterday. The blast has further weakened Peres's chance of victory in May 29 elections and thrown Mideast peace efforts into crisis.
Peres announced a $92 million package of security measures to prevent further terrorist attacks. These include steps to further separate Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, troop reinforcements at bus stations and public places, and the continued demolition of suicide bombers' homes.
Yesterday's attack by Islamic extremists, in which at least 19 people were killed, came exactly a week after a similar bus bomb in Jerusalem claimed 25 lives, the most deadly attack of its kind in Israel.
"It looks very bad for Mr. Peres," says political scientist Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University. "There are two factors that can destroy the peace process," he adds. "One is the accumulative effect of closely spaced terror attacks, and the other is if they come close to an election."
More than 100 Israelis have died in suicide bombings since October 1994, and the Israeli security forces appear increasingly impotent in the face of attacks by Islamic militants. After last week's attack in Jerusalem, Peres's comfortable lead in polls over his right-wing rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, was wiped out.
"If Peres cannot persuade Israelis that Arafat is able to do a better job of curbing Islamic terror than Israel was, then it is going to be harder and harder to persuade Israelis that there will be a long-term pay-off for the short-term pain and sacrifices they are making for peace," Professor Heller says.
Following yesterday's bomb blast, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, said in a statement issued via leaflets distributed in East Jerusalem that the attack was the last of a series to avenge the death of Palestinian bombmaker Yehiya Ayyash on Jan. 5. Hamas said it will wait three months to resume attacks, in order to give Israel and Hamas the chance to negotiate a political settlement.
Mr. Arafat, under pressure from Israel to curb Islamic militants, yesterday signed an order outlawing the military wings of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, the two groups that have claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings.
Political analysts and Western diplomats say that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, suspended by Israel following a similar attack that killed 25 people seven days ago, are now in severe danger of collapse.
"This is a devastating blow to the peace process," American Consul-General Edward Abington said at the scene of the bombing early yesterday. "Terrorism is the biggest enemy of the peace process and can destroy it."