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Terrorist Attack on Israeli Bus Stop May Sway Coming

By Marjorie Miller
Los Angeles Times

When Israeli radio reported that gunmen had opened fire on Jewish settlers at a West Bank bus stop on Monday, the first question on many political minds was, "Is this the terrorist attack that will sway the election?"

It was the same question that arose when Hezbollah guerrillas fired on Israeli soldiers in Southern Lebanon on Sunday. It even came to many Israelis when an unusually loud sonic boom shook Jerusalem last week, prompting hundreds of panicky telephone calls to police.

As the May 29 national election day draws near, Israelis increasingly are jumpy, anticipating a mass attack by Palestinian extremists in central Israel or by Muslim guerrillas on the northern border.

But probably no one is more worried than Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who, in addition to fearing for Israeli lives, is fighting for political survival.

Peres has been hanging on to a fragile five-point lead in the race against right-wing Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu that even members of his own Labor Party concede would disappear quickly with a devastating assault. Peres knows from experience this is true - he blames his loss to the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir in 1988 on a Palestinian attack on an Israeli bus in Jericho.

Just how massive an attack it would take to turn the election no one can predict in a country that is simultaneously accustomed to terror and fed up with it. The answer has a lot to do with the very psychology of terrorism - with how many people die and how off-balance or insecure it makes Israelis feel.

Four people died in the 1988 Jericho attack - a mother and her three children who were trapped in the burning bus with all of Israel watching the tragedy on television.

Monday's attack occurred outside of the West Bank settlement of Beit El about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. Israelis soon learned that the gunmen left one teen-age seminary student dead and another seriously wounded.

The attackers first shot at a bus carrying Jewish settlers, but the shots did not penetrate the armored windshield that is routinely used on West Bank buses as protection against such terrorist attacks. Two passengers were slightly hurt when the driver slammed on the brakes after the shooting.

The gunmen, presumably Palestinians, then turned their fire on a bus stop about a mile away, killing 17-year-old David Reuven Baum, who was also an American citizen.

There was no claim of responsibility for the shooting. The assailants overturned the silver vehicle they were driving and fled toward the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Jalazoun. Both the area of the attack and the refugee camp are under Israeli control.

"We have no security in this country, no security and no peace," Baum's mother, Frieda Freigel, said at the hospital before her son died. "If boys can't leave their yeshiva without someone taking a gun and shooting them, I don't know what kind of country this is."

Peres's political opposition was certain to claim the killing as further proof of the prime minister's inability to provide security to Israelis.

But while all attacks are damaging in such a tight electoral race, political commentators do not think Monday's incident will determine the outcome of the vote. Israeli security forces have been warning for weeks that Palestinian militants plan to carry out attacks ahead of the voting; in the wake of suicide bus bombings that left more than 60 dead in nine days earlier this year, this attack did not live up to Israelis' worst fears.

Additionally, the attack took place in a still-occupied area of the West Bank rather than in the Israeli heartland. Most Israelis do not go to the West Bank, where about 140,000 Jewish settlers live among some 2 million Palestinians, because they consider it too dangerous.

It is unclear whether Peres can win the election even without a major terrorist attack in Israel - undecided voters could swing either way. The vote is a referendum on the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and many Israelis are ambivalent about their progress.

Peres has been saying that Iranian-backed extremists want to defeat his government and, with it, the peace process.

"I think [the shooting] proves that there are enemies to the peace process who are trying and will try intensively to torpedo it in the next few weeks," said Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, Peres's campaign manager.

If Peres hopes to win, those "torpedoes" cannot hit major Israeli targets in the next 16 days.