Israeli officials, seeking a course of action to protect their wounded and bleeding country and to reassure the Israeli public have announced that they will not rule out strikes within Palestinian autonomous areas to root out strikes within Palestinian autonomous areas to root out known terrorists.
But can such actions be taken, even for a limited duration and in limited areas, without triggering a resumption of the intifada – the Palestinian uprising – on a wide scale?
Israeli officials believe that this will depend on the political and moral leadership shown by Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat to his own people.
Arafat has been desperately anxious since the dawn of Palestinian autonomy in May 1994 to avoid an all-out civil war with Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic group that claimed credit for the four suicide bombing attacks in Israel in nine days.
But after the fourth attack this week, Arafat went significantly further than ever before, outlawing the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the self-rule areas and pronouncing himself “ready to cooperate with Israel” in fighting terrorism.
This unequivocal formulation was seen in Jerusalem as encouraging.
And it resulted in a public call late Monday night by top Hamas political leaders in the Gaza Strip to the military wings of their movement to cease the chain of terror attacks.
This call did elicit any favorable responses from government officials – primarily because recent events have proven that Hamas is not a unified, hierarchical body with a disciplined command structure.
The likelihood is that the four recent suicide bombings were planned and perpetrated by a splinter unit of Hamas.
This would explain why repeated offers of a truce with Israel by certain Hamas spokesmen during the past two weeks were repeatedly followed by attacks.
Within Israel, public opinion seemed less than reassured by the government’s performance in the immediate wake of the bombings.
The national mood sank after the Feb.25 bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon. It plummeted Sunday, when the same Jerusalem has route targeted a week earlier was again struck with lethal efficiency.
But rock bottom was reached when a terrorist struck Monday in Tel Aviv.
True, Jerusalem is the capital, the Holy City, the focus of the nation’s dreams and prayers.
But it is colorful, Mediterranean-style Tel Aviv that in many ways is the true heart of the country.
Moreover, Dizengoff Street is the heart of Tel Aviv – and the Dizengoff Center, a modern, garish shopping-and-entertainment mall, is the heart of the heart.
When the bomb exploded outside the mall, that heart stopped beating momentarily.
At such moments of supreme national crisis, the yearning for unity is natural.
On Sunday, and with redoubled force Monday, calls were voiced for the creation of a national unity government, comprising both the Labor Party of Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the opposition Likud Party.
But with elections less than three months off and Peres’ popularity rating dropping like lead, the Likud, understandably, is reluctant to join the current government.
Peres is said to be prepared to add several Likud ministers to his government – on the condition that the Likud agrees to postpone the national elections, recently advanced at Peres’ own initiative from October to May 29.
Within Labor itself, key ministers are thought to be urging Peres to hand the Ministry of Defense, which he heads, over to Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, who, until a year ago, was the Israel Defense Force chief of staff.
The historical analogy of the period preceding the 1967 Six-Day War is in many people’s minds.
At that time, Peres himself, then secretary general of the opposition Rafi party, pressed for Labor Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol to add both the Rafi and Herut – the forerunner of today’s Likud -parties to his government.
Eventually Eshkol succumbed – and Rafi leader Moshe Dayan became minister of defense, taking much of the credit and glory for the triumphal victory that followed.
Whether Peres, almost 30 years later, is now prepared to offer any political opportunities to Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu is unclear.
Yossi Beilin, minister without portfolio and the man perhaps closest to Peres, denied Tuesday that any move toward forming a national unity government was afoot.
Peres himself would only say, at a Monday night news conference, that he had not heard such reports and was concentrating exclusively on the operational issues at hand.
But these pressures are likely to grow in the days ahead – because the “all-out war” that Israel declared this week on Hamas does not look like a short one.
The war was launched at an emergency Cabinet meeting called immediately after Monday’s terror attack.
At the news conference later that day, Peres announced the creation of a “special headquarters” to fight the suicide bombers.
The anti-terror commands, Peres said, would be led by Ami Ayalon, the recently appointed head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency.
Peres added that Ayalon’s staff would be empowered to send Israeli forces into “any place, anywhere, where this terrorism beings to grow” – leaving open the possibility that this could include areas under Palestinian control.
Other ministers made it clear that, when possible, the Palestinian Authority would be given the first opportunity to confront known terror targets within its territory.
If the Palestinians fails to act, or fails to act forcefully or successfully, they added, then Israel would go in.
In Gaza, many Palestinians feared an imminent massive Israeli invasion Monday night.
But Israeli sources, after emergency consultations between Peres and military commanders through the night, said there would be no “demonstrative” military actions in the Palestinian autonomous areas that would be designed solely to improve public morale inside Israel.
But, these sources added, operations would be directed at known and specific targets – which still left open the possibility of a strike within Gaza or West Bank autonomous areas.