Middle East peacemakers had hardly finished pumping hands over Saturday's new peace deal when the news turned sour: First one, then two car bomb explosions rattled the northern Israeli cities of Tiberias and Haifa on Sunday.
In years past, delicate peace negotiations have been derailed by suicide bombs, often the work of Islamic militants who are opposed to the peace process. Under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinians were accused of not doing enough to squelch terrorism, and eventually Mr. Netanyahu froze implementation of last year's Wye agreement.
This time, however, the Israeli response has been different. The attack, once again apparently the work of Islamic militants, was met with condemnations of terrorism - but not with an immediate impulse to blame Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. This new approach appears to treat Mr. Arafat as a potential peace partner, instead of viewing him as the enemy.
The proof, however, will be in whether the approach is long lasting. "If there are more attacks, it will really be a test of how [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak reacts to these situations," says Efraim Inbar, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. "It would be hard to blame Arafat the day after the signing of a new peace deal."
Evincing the sea change in the Israeli government's outlook, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said that the Palestinian Authority was making serious efforts to fight extremist groups. But no antiterrorist methods, he said, could bring 100 percent results.
Israeli police described the bombings as "work accidents," a euphemism they use to describe bombers who accidentally detonate themselves off too early - before reaching areas populated with civilians.
But some say its difficult to believe that two nearly simultaneous attacks could go wrong. "They're not looking for big casualties. They just want to mark their territory and show that they can still cause havoc," says Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hamas and other Islamic militant groups at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Israeli opposition leaders quickly seized on the news of the bombings to point fingers at the Palestinian Authority. Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon said Israeli Arabs are being radicalized by daily incitement they get from Voice of Palestine radio and the Palestinian press, which are tightly controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The rift over how to combat terrorism seemed only wider yesterday by the Israeli Supreme Court's 9-to-0 decision to ban the use of "moderate physical pressure" by Israel's security services. A number of human rights groups had argued that the interrogation methods - which include tying a detainee in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, placing foul-smelling sacks over the suspect's head, and rough shaking - amounted to torture.
The decision was hailed by rights activists, jurists, and politicians. But many others - including members of Mr. Barak's own Cabinet, such as Mr. Sneh - said the ruling would tie the hands of Israeli investigators and make it more difficult to prevent terrorism.
If all does moves ahead on schedule with the revised Wye pact sealed on Saturday night, the first steps are expected to take place as soon as this week (see box at right).
A majority of Israelis, one poll showed, back Barak's moves so far. But many Palestinians seem unhappy with the deal - or at least unimpressed with the repeated agreements on the same set of issues that were supposed to have been solved more than three years ago.
"I don't know if we should laugh or cry. It's a real Shakespearean story: It's much ado about almost nothing," says Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Israeli military intelligence. "Wye is a very small fragment of the original Oslo accord, which was not implemented according to the original timetable. If this is the way people think we can negotiate a final settlement with the Palestinians, then we'll all have to hope to live a very long life to see the end of it."
The tight deadline means that negotiators would, at warp speed, have to tackle a set of issues that have always been considered the most complex - including the future status of Jerusalem and the plight of 3 million to 4 million Palestinian refugees abroad. With such seemingly intractable disputes on the table, reports have surfaced that Barak is planning to consent to the creation of a Palestinian state by September 2000, while leaving negotiators to argue indefinitely about other final-status issues.
"Certain issues related to final status are perhaps insoluble," says Asher Susser, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "I cannot foresee how they are going to solve the refugee issue, or for example, Jerusalem. And I doubt Arafat will accept [the Arab world's] conclusion that he would have given up Jerusalem."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society