Israel Bus Attack Signals New Downward Spiral

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Rescuers evacuate an injured Israeli soldier from the site of the bus attack

And so the depressing cycle moves up another gear... At least eight Israelis were killed and a number injured Wednesday when a Palestinian bus driver deliberately ploughed his vehicle into a crowd at a bus stop near Tel Aviv. Although an unknown radical Islamic group claimed responsibility for the attack, the Palestinian Authority claimed that the 34-year-old driver, who had worked for an Israeli bus company for five years, had acted alone. The driver was captured by Israeli security forces as he tried to flee back to Gaza.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Barak immediately closed Palestinian areas and his defense minister vowed that Israel would continue to pursue those responsible for planning such attacks — an ominous warning in light of Tuesday's assassination of a lieutenant colonel in Yasser Arafat's security detail in an Israeli helicopter attack. Even more ominous, perhaps, was the sense that Israel and the Palestinians may be entering a new downward spiral of violent conflict.

Israel will, no doubt, retaliate for Wednesday's attack, and that retaliation will, no doubt, bring further terror attacks by Palestinians. And that reality is unlikely to be altered much by the change in Israel's government. Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister last week in the hope that he'd get tough with the Palestinians, but there may not be all that much he could do differently at a tactical level to respond to attacks such as the one that occurred Wednesday — indeed, he's trying to persuade Barak to stay on as his defense minister. Whether that retaliation takes the form of mass punishment of the Palestinians through blockading the West Bank and Gaza, or more targeted efforts such as Tuesday's assassination, it's been done before. And yet the attacks continue.

Although the peace process requires Arafat's Palestinian Authority to police terrorist activities in areas under their control, they too have proven unwilling or unable to rein in the militants, more so since the onset of the latest intifada last October.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders began talking in the late 1980s because they'd reached a strategic impasse: Each side finally recognized that it was never going to be able to destroy the other. A decade later, the parties to that conversation bumped a different reality: that neither side is able to satisfy the other's terms for resolving their conflict. And yet the strategic impasse that got them talking in the first place persists. The combination of those two realities — that they're unable to either destroy or accommodate each other — may condemn Israelis and Palestinians to an increasingly bloody holding pattern.