Hamas bombers strike at the heart of Pere's support


THE Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Shimon Peres, looked grave but determined yesterday, as he did or the first time what Yitzhak Rabin had to do half a dozen times last year justify the continuation of the peace process to a group of sceptical local journalists on the day a bus full with Israeli civilians had been blown to smithereens.

And unlike his murdered predecessor, who had a disturbing tendency to ramble on towards near incoherence on some such occasions. Mr Peres issued his statements clearly and concisely, insisting that "Israel will not surrender to Hamas", and that while the "war to death against the terrorists" would continue, so too would "the for peace and dialogue" - more moderate Palestinians.

And when the question that must have crossed his mind as soon as he heard of the bombings was put to him, he did not hesitate for so much as an instant: asked how he thought yesterday's twin blasts would affect his chances of winning re election in May, the Prime Minister replied that such considerations were out of place on so tragic a day, and that even to raise the query was to insult the latest victims.

But the very nature of his press conference, appeared to contradict Mr Peres's answer. Where Mr Rabin would often face these media briefings alone, his successor elected to bring some support with him. When he met the press he was flanked by Brig Gen Amnon Shahak, the Israeli army's chief of staff, and by Mr Arye Amit, the chief of police in Jerusalem.

And whenever possible, he deflected questions in their direction, allowing them to elaborate on the difficulties of thwarting suicide bombers, and the merits and disadvantages of imposing prolonged closure orders on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, cynically, what Mr Peres was attempting was to distribute blame to avoid having to bear the sole burden for the failure to prevent the suicide bombings.

It is a tactic, however, that is unlikely to cut much ice with the Israeli right wing opposition parties, which have been trailing Mr Peres and his allies in the opinion polls in recent months and which have been gradually coming round to a grudging acceptance of the autonomy process as a viable, if hardly ideal, framework for Israeli Palestinian accommodation.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right wing Likud, yesterday refrained from criticising Mr Peres or the peace process directly. But he could well afford to. He knows the bombers of Hamas have rekindled his fading election hopes, that the polls showing 75 per cent support for the peace process and sky high personal popularity for Mr Peres will almost certainly have shifted in his favour come next weekend.

And he knows that any subsequent bombing will bring a few thousand more Israelis, temporarily aligned with Mr Peres since Mr Rabin's assassination, back into the Likud camp.

Desperate to remind Israelis of the fruits of peace, Mr Peres listed the Arab leaders who had telephoned with their condolences President Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, King Hassan of Morocco and, the man who was "the first to call", Yasser Arafat.

But such regional solidarity means nothing to those Israelis who fear their country is paying too high a price for peace, that Mr Arafat cannot be trusted, or that - as Mr Rabin's assassin Yigal Amir said - it is "unJewish" for a secular Israeli government to relinquish divinely - promised land to the Palestinians.

The twin bombers of Hamas have reignited all those Israeli fears, barely suppressed in the three and a half months since Mr Rabin was killed. They have boosted Mr Netanyahu's chances of defeating Mr Peres in May's elections.

And since Mr Netanyahu regards Mr Arafat as a terrorist and has indicated opposition to any further compromises with the Palestinians, they have moved a step nearer their self declared goal of destroying the peace process altogether.