With Early Restraint After Bombing, Israel Appears to Cling to Peace Track

Friday's attack in Jerusalem was third such act in three weeks. But Israeli Cabinet may ratify peace deal soon.

The suicide bombers struck, as they often have, in a popular market at its most crowded hour. Then came chaos: the sirens and the ambulances, the police and the press, the protesters and spectators.

The aftermath of a bombing like Friday's at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem is a kind of practiced panic that, sadly, Israelis know well. But what has not been routine is the response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the third terror attack on Israelis since he and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the Wye peace agreement last month.

As news of the bombing hit Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet room, debate on the ratification of the Wye agreement was suspended. But officials close to Netanyahu say they will resume discussion - probably by Wednesday - as long as Mr. Arafat shows he's still taking a hard line against his own Palestinian militants and continues to press the Palestine National Council to vote to cancel clauses in their founding charter calling for Israel's destruction.

"If they cancel, they'll receive. If they won't cancel, they won't receive," Netanyahu told a rally of right-wing supporters over the weekend.

Absent were his usual accusations that Arafat was to blame. Gone were his superlative statements of the past, waging that Arafat had not lifted a finger to fight terrorism. And spurned were suggestions by the newly appointed foreign minister, hawkish ex-general Ariel Sharon, that Israel react by resuming its tinderbox plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood on Arab land in East Jerusalem.

Even the left-wing Ha'aretz newspaper, which usually offers incisive criticism of Netanyahu's policies, editorialized that the prime minister had made the right moves after the bombing - but did not seem to be using it as an excuse to stop implementation of the agreement.

Indeed, many analysts estimate that Netanyahu no longer sees foot-dragging as the politically expedient thing to do. Polls show that most Israelis don't think stalling on negotiations will bring them peace.

"The peace process is not dying," says Barry Rubin, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University outside of Tel Aviv. "Both sides need it. Netanyahu needs very much for the agreement to succeed, to show that he's making progress."

Three bombings in three weeks are as much of a test as any Israeli prime minister has had since the Oslo process began in 1993. Even Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the most dovish of any leader in recent Israeli history, stopped implementation of the Oslo accords after four consecutive suicide bombings in 1996.

Of course, it may be easier for an Israeli prime minister to plod on with peace when the casualty count is so low. Each of the three recent attacks seemed to flop. A week and a half ago, a suicide bomber missed his target - a busload of Israeli schoolchildren - and killed one soldier instead. On Friday, the only ones who lost their lives were the two Palestinian bombers. Israeli security experts say the amateurish attack is proof the crackdown is working.

Others, however, still have doubts that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are doing all they can to stop such bombings - or that Netanyahu has made a true commitment to peace.

"I don't think the PA is coming down on terrorism," says Hillel Frisch, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "And Netanyahu hasn't accepted the Wye accord, because he hasn't accepted freezing settlement."

But at least some of Netanyahu's supporters - including one who witnessed Friday's bombing - say they think he's brought home the best agreement he can.

"I like Bibi," Sigal Itzer says, using Netanyahu's nickname. "I think he got a good agreement for us and I want him to continue the peace process. It's the only way."

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