New Cease-Fire Faces an Immediate Test

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Israeli police stand next to a body following a car bomb blast in Jerusalem

The bombers' timing couldn't have been better. Hours after Israel and the Palestinian Authority began taking tentative steps toward implementing a cease-fire agreement, terrorists detonated a car bomb in a crowded Jerusalem market, killing two Israelis and injuring nine others. The attack dramatically increases the strain on the agreement reached by Yasser Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres late Wednesday to implement the stillborn Sharm el Sheik agreement brokered three weeks ago by President Clinton. And that may have been its precise intention: The Islamic Jihad organization, which has rejected the peace process from the get-go, claimed responsibility for the blast. Its fellow Islamist organization Hamas, which has also used terrorist bombings as a weapon against the peace process, also vowed Thursday to ignore the latest cease-fire.

Israeli defense minister Ephraim Sneh immediately blamed the Palestinian Authority for the attack, attributing it to the release in recent weeks of scores of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants from Arafat's jails. The attack will sharpen the political dilemma posed by the latest cease-fire for Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Israel had begun withdrawing some of its tanks from the outskirts of Palestinian neighborhoods Thursday, and Arafat's police were seen breaking up demonstrations around Israeli checkpoints following the agreement to try and curb the violence that has claimed 173 lives over the past five weeks.

The Peres-Arafat truce had been an unlikely end to a day of gun battles that claimed the lives of six Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers. The escalation of the shooting war had prompted Barak to prepare new harsh counter-measures Wednesday, but those were suspended after the latest truce agreement.

While six Palestinians killed in a single day would enrage but not surprise a Palestinian population that has lost upwards of 150 people in five weeks, for Israelis the loss of three soldiers in a combat situation in the West Bank came as a shock. Compounded by a terrorist bombing in the heart of Jerusalem, that will fuel the fires of popular disquiet stoked by the opposition Likud party in the hope of toppling Barak's minority government. To be sure, the killings may overshadow a peace pact brokered by Peres, a man widely disdained even in his own party as a dovish elitist. Israel's response to the uprising may have been condemned abroad as excessive; at home the reverse is true. There is mounting concern in the Jewish state that its army appears unable to respond decisively to the challenge posed by the new intifada, and that may weaken Barak's hold on power.

Arafat's political challenge may be even more formidable. Even if the Palestinian leader has now found the political will to rein in Palestinians confronting the Israelis with rocks and assault rifles, it's an open question whether he'll muster the necessary political authority. Never mind the Islamists who've always opposed the peace process and declared Thursday that they're not bound by any cease-fire; even the rank and file of Arafat's own Fatah organization now appears to favor struggle over negotiations as a means of dealing with the Israelis. The Jerusalem bombing highlights the fact that in order to keep his agreement, Arafat will need his security forces to once again turn their guns on fellow Palestinians in order to protect Israelis — and the violence of the last five weeks makes that a tall order.

Despite the efforts of President Clinton, Arafat and Barak, the last cease-fire collapsed within 48 hours. And it may take more than an Arafat-Peres duet to give the latest attempt more traction. In the face of Hamas terror bombings designed to stop the peace process, the late Yitzhak Rabin had vowed to "fight terrorism as if there is no peace and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism." But for Barak there's not much peace left to pursue.