Is Netanyahu determined to wreck the peace process, or has he lost his way?

The Israeli view

Israelis have started calling it the mini-intifada, a return to the days of the Palestinian uprising after 1987. In the two weeks since bulldozers started work on a Jewish settlement at Har Homa, demonstrations and riots have erupted across the West Bank.

But it is an intifada with a difference: it is accompanied by suicide bombers, who struck twice yesterday in the Gaza Strip. This shows that the explosion in Tel Aviv 10 days ago, the first suicide bomb in a year and which killed three women, was not a one-off. Unfortunately for the peace of the Middle East, suicide bombs are extremely effective.

Four bombs last year ensured the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. The implacability of the bomber and his ability to strike in the heart of Tel Aviv is probably the Palestinians' strongest card. The political impact of the bombs is far greater than riots in Hebron or Ramallah.

In the aftermath of the violence, Dennis Ross, the US negotiator, said the peace process had life in it yet. But the problem for ordinary Israelis and Palestinians is that the process is decreasingly peaceful.

Ilan Pappe, a political scientist at Haifa university, said: "Going by what Netanyahu does rather than what he says, I'm convinced he doesn't want to implement Oslo. How otherwise can you explain the timing of Har Homa and the opening of the tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem last year?"

Maybe Mr Netanyahu's strategy is not so coherent. Since the crisis began he has given many interviews but there is no sign of where he is going. He may be getting the worst of all possible worlds. Israeli troops have left most of Gaza and the main cities of the West Bank. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, already has a quasi-state. Now that the West Bank is a jigsaw puzzle of competing jurisdictions, the Israeli army cannot even begin to cope with Hamas or Islamic Jihad without the co-operation of the Palestinian security services.

Even then it would be difficult. The Israeli army speaks of the support and equipment needed by a suicide bomber. But any small cell with one person who is willing to die could carry out an attack. Hamas appears to have many such cells, operating independently to escape repression and, possibly, to allow leaders to disclaim responsibility. After Har Homa it is doubtful if Mr Arafat could again round up Hamas and Jihad militants, as he did last year.

In recent elections for professional unions in Gaza and Nablus, Hamas easily defeated Mr Arafat's Fatah movement.

If Mr Netanyahu has ruled out security co-operation with the Palestinians by building Har Homa, will he go to the opposite extreme and reoccupy the autonomous Palestinian enclaves? "If they do ... they will not be welcomed with flowers," said Marwan Barghouti, secretary of Fatah on the West Bank. Israel's security services have warned Mr Netanyahu against trying to do this, because it would provoke a worse conflict.

It is not fair to blame everything on Mr Netanyahu. Oslo was always deeply flawed. The agreement looked better to diplomats than to the Israelis and Palestinians whose lives it would most affect. It was contradictory - Israel was to withdraw but settlements were to stay. A new system of by-pass roads was to connect the settlements. It was based on the assumption that for the Palestinians anything was better than the status quo.

Israel is finding out, as European colonial powers discovered in the first half of the century, that home rule will not satisfy a nation demanding self-determination.

t Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet US President Bill Clinton in Washington early next week, it was announced yesterday.

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