Israeli PM pledges to strike back at bombers

Two days of death in Middle East step up risk of military clashes
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In Ben Yehuda street in the heart of Jerusalem, Israelis started yesterday with a show of defiance by sipping coffee and drinking fruit juices in the same pavement cafes where suicide bombers had killed four people just the day before.

But by lunchtime, the restaurants along Ben Yehuda had turned up their radios so people could listen to news from Lebanon, where the Israeli army confirmed that guerrillas had killed eleven elite naval commandos overnight, the worst military defeat for Israel in Lebanon since 1985.

The disaster in Lebanon - the naval commandos are Israel's prime elite force along with the chief of staff's special unit - increases the likelihood that Israel will make raids into the autonomous Palestinian enclaves, if only to shown that its army has not lost its effectiveness.

These operations were foreshadowed in a statement yesterday afternoon from the Israeli Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs headed by the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "Israel will act against the terrorist organisations and their infrastructure to ensure the security of its citizens."

The statement also knocked away a critical underpinning of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993 under which Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority would acquire progressively more land as Israel got more security. The statement said Israel would not "grant the Palestinian Authority additional territory while the PA fails to fulfill all its obligations."

"We cannot see a situation where we are asked to hand over more land at a time when it isn't fighting terrorism," the Israeli leader told a news conference. "What will happen when we hand over more territories? They will also be turned into bases for this terrorist organisation," he said in a reference to Hamas.

It is now unlikely that Israel will take further military action until the end of the visit by Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, next week. After the bomb in Ben Yehuda street Mr Netanyahu will use that visit to get the US to put maximum pressure on Mr Arafat without offering Israeli concessions in return.

There was little sign yesterday of Mr Arafat beginning a massive round- up of Hamas members in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. If he does arrest hundreds of Hamas members, it will probably be as part of a deal worked out with the US and not directly with Mr Netanyahu. This is unlikely, but cannot be entirely ruled out. In return for mass arrests, Mr Arafat would look for the temporary suspension of work on the Israeli settlement at Har Homa in Jerusalem and a limitation on Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank.

The sense of crisis after the Ben Yehuda bomb increased markedly with the slaughter of the commandos in Lebanon which is likely to have a greater impact in Israel than the death of 73 Israeli soldiers killed earlier this year when two helicopters bound for Lebanon collided in northern Israel.

The Israeli army and intelligence has opposed reoccupying the autonomous Palestinian enclaves, but it might begin to launch raids to try to arrest people it believes are members of Hamas or Jihad.

The danger is that the Palestinian security services, numbering 40,000 armed men, might well resist such incursions. If this happened, the Israeli siege of the enclaves would probably become permanent.

There will be strong public support in Israel for a hard line. Of the four people killed in Ben Yehuda street three were 14-year-old girls and one a toy shop employee. Last month a photograph appeared in all the Israeli media showing Mr Arafat kissing Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, the head of Hamas in Gaza.

In the immediate term, Mr Netanyahu is in a strong position. The US has essentially accepted his case that Mr Arafat must guarantee Israeli security before the rest of the Oslo agreement is carried out. In the US Congress Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, and Trent Lott, the leader of the Senate, both support Mr Netanyahu. The backing for Mr Arafat is from Western Europe and the Arab world, and is largely ineffective.

In the longer term, however, there is little sign that Mr Netanyahu has a policy to replace Oslo. The closure of the West Bank is seen by the Israeli army and security as a way of reassuring Israelis, but otherwise ineffective. Ami Ayalon, the head of the Shin Bet internal security force, recently said Israel needed to decide if "a strong or a weak Arafat was better for Israel".