AT the beginning of 1996 the prospects for peace appeared to be on the rise in two of the most conflict-battered areas on earth: Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Three months later, terrorist bombs are threatening to blow both places back into the morass of fear, intransigence, and fighting from which they had so recently seemed to emerge.
Not that these are the only regions where terrorism has struck this year. In January a truck bomb devastated Sri Lanka's central bank. This week alone, smaller explosions have hit Bahrain, Turkey, and Algeria.
But as they gather in Egypt this week for their hastily called antiterror summit, world leaders might do well to ponder a particular lesson of Jerusalem and Ulster: Terrorists can be most dangerous when peace is nearing success. Hard men can become desperate when the messy compromise of reconciliation threatens their radical visions.
Thus the task for those leaders who seek peace may be to find a way to prevent violence from halting the orderly process of negotiation - and to try and define the bombmakers as marginal, if lethal criminals, not a central force of opposition.
That's a note that President Clinton sounded in a speech last Friday. "Today, the fundamental differences are no longer between Arab and Jew or Protestant and Catholic.... The dividing line today is between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it, between those who look to the future and those who are locked in the past," said Clinton.
Getting peace back on track won't be easy, in either case. Both the Irish Republican Army and Hamas - or more accurately the hard-line factions within these organizations that fomented a return to violence - have compelling institutional reasons to see reconciliation disrupted, say experts. These only exacerbate their ideological stubbornness.
The IRA, for its part, faces the prospect that a long-term cease-fire could cause it to self-destruct. Unlike Hamas, which provides some social services to Palestinians, the IRA is a pure paramilitary organization. Action is its reason for existence. Absent conflict, attention and perhaps power were slowly leaking to the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein, and its leader, Gerry Adams.
FURTHERMORE, the IRA is self-funding, notes terrorism expert Brian Jenkins of Kroll Associates, an international investigative firm. It fills its war chest at least partly through bank robbery, extortion, kidnapping, and other criminal activities. Over time, maintaining cash flow assumes greater importance, while political positions become a thinner veneer.
"Basically you have a mafia. That makes dismantling the organization more difficult," says Dr. Jenkins.
So far, the IRA has not made clear whether its recent string of London bombs was meant as a reminder of what it could do, or marks the beginning of a new round of full-scale violence.
Last week, Gerry Adams said that IRA commanders have told him they are ready for "another 25 years of war" if the British government does not meet more of its demands.
In the Middle East, Hamas was being battered by two opponents. Israel was applying steady military pressure - most notably through the recent alleged assassination of a top Hamas bombmaker. (Israeli officials have not admitted they carried out this killing, but they have not denied it, either.)
Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were outmaneuvering Hamas hard-liners politically. The peace process with Israel had for the first time given Mr. Arafat real territory to control. He coopted the political branch of Hamas, bringing some members into the new Palestine National Authority (PNA) .
"The bombings are Hamas's military wing's way of telling Israel and the PLO - and most importantly, their own political leadership - that they still exist and can still react," says Khalil Jashan, president of the National Association of Arab Americans in Washington.
Now Arafat is the one squeezed by pincers. Israel, his partner in the peace process, is demanding he root out Hamas from the areas he controls. Yet if he cracks down too hard on the radicals he risks alienating a significant portion of his own supporters.
Eventually Arafat will provide just enough to satisfy the pressures put on him from the US and Israel but not up to the point of creating (Palestinian) civil war, judges Jashan.
The situation in both the Middle East and Northern Ireland is made more complicated by the fact that the line between "terrorist" and "politician" has been blurry in the past. The PLO itself was long condemned by Israel as a terror organization; many of Sinn Fein's leaders are thought to have once been more closely associated with the violent provisional IRA.
In the end, both the IRA and Hamas are collections of different kinds of people - with some viewing violence as a tool to be set aside if the time is right, and others who may see it as their reason for life.
The latter may well be irreconcilable by any means. Violence "is the thing that gives them status," says Brian Jenkins. "Absent the armed struggle, they become clerks in Belfast, or herd goats in the occupied territories."
Where will these struggles proceed now? In the Middle East, the terror conference set for the middle of this week is intended to show world support for the continuation of the peace process - blunting the effects of terrorism on Israeli citizen morale. More bombs might damage the political prospects of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, bringing to power a Likud opposition that is opposed to handing more power to Arafat's PNA.
Still, it would be very difficult for Israel to redeploy troops in areas where they have now pulled back.
"Much of what's happened is irreversible," says Bernard Reich, a professor of political science at Georgetown University.
In Northern Ireland, IRA guerrillas appear to have lost patience with the pace of negotiations. The logical outcome of the peace process - a gradual blurring of the political divide between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic - is unlikely to satisfy the most committed IRA soldiers. That points to a continuation of a battle, despite the war-weariness of both Catholic and Protestant Northern Ireland civilians.
*Staff writers George Moffett and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.