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Israeli retaliation likely, but when, against whom?


JERUSALEM -- In the Middle East, few knocks go unanswered, and Israel is expected to respond -- sooner or later -- to the bombings of Jewish targets in Buenos Aires and London.

But who is responsible for the bomb attacks? Despite the quick-draw blame placed on Iran and "international Islamic terrorists" by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, analysts here acknowledge that there is little proof of culpability.

"There are no concrete details. . . . Israel still does not know for certain," said Ze'ev Schiff, a respected Israeli military affairs analyst who writes for the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz.

The spate of bombings again takes Israel into the nether world of anonymous terrorism, where there are many likely suspects but little chance of knowing for sure who committed the crime.

Mr. Rabin has accused the usual suspect: "Iranian elements." In the past, such accusations have led to retaliation by Israel against the nearest group of that description, the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

"I don't know where or when, but absolutely Israel will hit Hezbollah in southern Lebanon," said Barry Rubin, a senior researcher at the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "There is a war going on."

Mr. Rubin believes the Hezbollah organization is connected to the recent bombings. But he acknowledged that "it's not always easy to tell. Sometimes people are quick to jump and have to reconsider."

Bombs exploded in London yesterday and Tuesday outside the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish fund-raising organization, injuring 19.

A car bomb, believed to have been the work of a suicide bomber, crumpled a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires on July 18, killing at least 96.

Israeli officials are more circumspect about connecting those incidents with the crash of a plane last week over Panama, also thought to have been caused by a bomb. Many of the 21 victims were Jewish.

But Ariel Merari, head of the Political Violence Research Unit at Tel Aviv University, said he believes that bomb was set by rival drug lords aimed at one Jewish passenger involved in their business.

Terror attacks outside the Middle East have ebbed since the wave of skyjackings, bombings and shootings of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were carried out mostly by Palestinian groups, now largely quieted by the peace process with Israel.

Incidents more lately -- such as the bombing of New York's World Trade Center -- mostly are attributed to radical Shiite Muslims, said Mr. Merari.

"There clearly are some successes of terrorism," he said. "The lesson for states that use terrorism is that if they keep it below the threshold of [bringing] punishment, it pays."

Israel is encouraging more severe punishment. Israel's special adviser on terrorism, Yigal Pressler, called yesterday for a campaign against "radical Islamic fundamentalist terror." Israel's envoy to the United Nations said the bombings "pointed clearly to Iranian involvement."

And Mr. Rabin warned Tuesday that "the world must recognize this Islamic danger, parts of which are connected to Iranian elements."

Iran lashed back, saying yesterday that Israel is seeking an excuse to attack its opponents.

"Accusing Islamists even before the British police could find the perpetrators shows that Israel wants to take advantage of these incidents to justify its current aggression and possible future attacks," said state-run Iran radio.

Lebanon has long been the battleground for proxy warfare between Israel and Iran, which Israel accuses of directing Hezbollah. Israel has carried out assassinations and kidnappings of Hezbollah leaders. The latest came Friday, when Israeli com

mandos swooped into Lebanon to abduct Kassem Reihan, a Hezbollah activist. Israel periodically shells towns and villages inside and outside the zone its troops occupy in southern Lebanon.

The Hezbollah, in retaliation, carry out regular attacks against Israeli troops in that zone and occasionally launch mortar shells toward towns in northern Israel.

After each incident, the other side vows revenge. The Hezbollah vowed to strike Israel after 26 guerrillas were killed in a fierce air raid in eastern Lebanon last month. Israel vowed to exact a "painful" revenge for an attack Monday that killed one Israeli officer and wounded 13 soldiers in its self-proclaimed "security zone."

By blaming Iranian terrorists for the recent bombings, Israel is signaling its likely response against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, say experts here.

"Despite what happened in Argentina and London, the main front is the border with Lebanon," Mr. Rubin said. "By dealing with the issue in Lebanon, you avoid political fallout. You don't have to attack Syria or engage Iran directly."

"We don't need further excuses to attack them in Lebanon," said Efraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center. "We have an open account with the terrorist groups in Lebanon."

Such attacks probably do not dissuade Hezbollah members who are "highly motivated and ready to sacrifice their lives," he acknowledged. "But it raises the cost of belonging to such a group. Others might be dissuaded."

Other options for response by Israel are limited. After the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich, Germany, Israeli agents embarked on a worldwide assassination campaign of those it thought were responsible. But the campaign ended in embarrassment, after a year and at least nine assassinations, when agents mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway.

Dr. Inbar favors a return to that option, however: "Bombing a whole village in Lebanon doesn't look good. To some extent it's morally problematic."

Mr. Merari believes that only a diplomatic option is workable.

"The cloak-and-dagger assignment is not very useful. These people are replaceable by Iran, and it puts Israel on the same moral basis," he said. "Direct military retaliation also is counterproductive and very dangerous.

"The only thing possible to succeed is an economic boycott" against Iran, he argued. "I'm not very optimistic that will happen."

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