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Bombings test commitment to peace process Israeli Peres wavers in shadow of the bombers

SHIMON PERES called it the worst week of his life. The three suicide attacks by Islamic fanatics, which killed a total of 26 Israelis and foreign students, have also blown a hole in the Prime Minister's self confidence. And, in the space of a few days the Labour leader's ascendancy over his right-wing Likud challenger for the 29 May elections, Binyamin Netanyahu, dissolved from 15 per cent to zero.

"I tried to keep calm," Mr Peres confessed to the mass circulation Yediot Aharonot this weekend, "to move the country from one state of mind to another state of mind, like after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. But how much peace of mind can a human being retain after such horror?"

Mr Netanyahu, by contrast, is beginning to project himself as a statesman. He appealed for restraint from his more hot-headed followers. He didn't need to exploit the atrocities. Hamas, the Islamic revolutionaries who reject any compromise with the Jewish state and do not hesitate to use violence to wreck the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, were doing the job for him. Asked why he thought he would make a better prime minister, a resurgent Mr Netanyahu beamed: "We have better ideas."

As soon as he looked like a winner, his Likud doubters fell silent. No one is talking any longer about replacing him with the former justice minister, Dan Meridor. And David Levy, the Moroccan-born ex-foreign minister who threatened to split the right-wing vote, is returning to the fold. This weekend, Labour is regrouping and preparing its counter attack. It finds nuggets of comfort amid the devastation of bombs and the opinion polls.

A Gallup survey in the tabloid Ma'ariv logged 66 per cent of all voters still supporting the peace process. While 32 per cent thought that stopping the process would increase terrorism, about the same number thought it would decrease it. But more than 60 per cent acknowledged that there was no policy that could halt the attacks completely. And only 12 per cent thought Likud could do it.

"Despite the bombings, there is no significant change in the attitude towards the peace process," says Yossi Beilin, a Peres supporter who is now a full, if defiant, cabinet minister. "I can, therefore, imagine and hope that the changes in voting preferences are a spontaneous reaction to the violence. Three months is long enough for the impact to fade.

"Even some of the bereaved families came to the Prime Minister and asked him to continue the peace process. There is a kind of maturity. People understand much better that strengthening the opposition to peace, or stopping the peace process, is exactly the dream of terrorists and means playing into their hands. For the first time, even the Likud did not demand that we halt the peace process."

Yet Mr Beilin knows as well as anyone that more suicide bombings could make this sound like wishful thinking. The right already has its equivalent of the spontaneous shrines that sprang up in memory of Yitzhak Rabin. On a gritty car park next to the site of the Jerusalem bus bombing, someone has written on the wall: "Peres is a victim of peace." Someone else has crossed out "of peace".

When the Prime Minister inspected the carnage last Sunday, far right demonstrators chanted: "Peres is a murderer! Peres is next in line!" The inhibitions on the right inspired by the Rabin assassination are evaporating.

The government has announced a more rigorous watch on the border between the Palestinian-controlled areas and Israel proper. It is trying to step up protection on buses. The security services have been ordered to "locate and eradicate" the bombers and their handlers.

Yet for the short term, Mr Peres is acutely and frustratedly aware that Israelis are beholden to Yasser Arafat for their personal safety. Only his Palestinian police can disable the Hamas infrastructure. They arrested 200 Islamic militants last week, but they remain reluctant to confront the leaders. Mr Arafat has his own ways and his own agenda.

Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor and former foreign ministry director general, explains: "Most Israelis are ready for far-reaching territorial compromises, though they remain sceptical of the PLO. The way to sell an agreement is to convince people that it gives them peace and quiet. If it doesn't do that, the whole thing isn't worth a candle.

"It all hinges on what Arafat's response will be and whether there will be further acts of terrorism between now and the election. Arafat has to convince the Israeli people that they are buying peace. If he does not convince them, not only will there not be peace, there will be no Arafat. The Hamas people are after him as much as they are after the peace agreement."

As Shimon Peres put it to a visiting European minister: "We do not want to make Arafat collapse. We are not asking him to serve the state of Israel. But we want to make it clear to him that he is liable to fall victim himself if he continues with the way he is acting today."