They came to set another milestone on the road to peace in the Mideast. And even though they had been talking secretly for years, it was a historic moment when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein signed a declaration on the South Lawn of the White House formally ending a 46-year-old state of war between the two countries. But at the very moment the leaders were soaking up the applause of President Clinton and hundreds of assembled dignitaries, Iranian-backed guerrillas of the Party of God -- Hizbullah -- ambushed Israeli troops in south Lebanon, killing one and wounding 17. And before the two leaders left Washington, car bombs had drowned out the latest celebration of peacemaking. "There is no doubt in my mind we face a wave of extreme Islamic radical terrorist movements," said Rabin. "They have infrastructure all over the world . . . in the United States, in Europe and in Latin America."
The terrorists demonstrated chilling reach. On July 18 a car bomb destroyed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 96 people and wounding 200. The next day a bomb destroyed a commuter plane in Panama, killing 21 passengers, most of them Jewish businessmen. Then, in less than 13 hours last week, separate car-bomb attacks in London wrecked the Israeli Embassy and the offices of a Jewish charity, the Joint Israel Appeal. The CIA warned that France, Spain and Italy are likely targets, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington told U.S. Jewish organizations to beef up security. It reversed a gradual decline in terrorist incidents that began in 1987. "For a long time, people felt that terrorism was not a problem," said Robert Kupperman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "Now it may become a monstrous problem."
Quietly, the killers seem to have built new networks, expanded the list of acceptable targets and come up with new twists on the old problem of how to sneak a bomb past guards. In London, police say a well-dressed, middle-aged woman carrying a shopping bag from Harrods talked a guard into letting her park a gray Audi outside the Israeli Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, one of the most expensive blocks in Europe. In both London and Buenos Aires, bombs wrecked purely philanthropic organizations, suggesting that the terrorists now consider any Jewish gathering place a target, not just Israeli institutions. That's a fearsome problem for countries with substantial Jewish populations -- and a dilemma for Israel. "I can't accept that my hands in Lebanon will be tied because a lunatic may kill innocent Jews anywhere in the world," says Israeli Health Minister Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli brigadier general who is close to Rabin.
But the most ominous case was the Panama bombing. Families have claimed 20 of the 21 bodies. Officials suspect that one still unclaimed is a terrorist's. And that "turns all our aviation-security measures upside down," a counterterrorism official told Newsweek. Elaborate security procedures at airports are based on the premise that the bomber wants to live. If a suicide bomber downed the Panamanian plane, said this official, "we're in a lot of trouble."
Israel may not have anticipated such novel twists, but it expected some kind of reprisal for its latest raids into Lebanon. In May, Israeli commandos in helicopters flew deep into the eastern Bekaa Valley to kidnap Mustafa Dirani, a Shiite Muslim radical. In 1986 he held a captured Israeli aviator, then sold him to Iranian Revolutionary Guards two years later. Hussein Khalil, the head of Hizbullah's politburo in Lebanon, said that the raid was an "expansion" of the war -- and that his group would retaliate in kind. Israel may have used information from Dirani to plan an air raid on a Hizbullah training camp in the Bekaa Valley. Among the 26 people killed, according to U.S. intelligence sources, were several Iranian Revolutionary Guard trainers. The last time Israel targeted Hizbullah so successfully, by killing its leader in 1992, Hizbullah struck back by blowing up the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires with a massive car bomb, officials believe. The bombing remains unsolved.
This time Argentine investigators have been more aggressive -- or luckier. They say privately that the evidence points clearly to two interwoven sources: Hizbullah and Iran. At the weekend, police were holding six Argentine suspects -- among them two women and a pair of brothers. They also have an informant -- a 38-year-old Iranian, Manouchehr Moatamer, who was placed in protective custody in Venezuela three weeks ago after Iranian diplomats there tried to kidnap him. According to Argentine newspaper reports, Moatamer, who calls himself a former Iranian government official, identified four Iranian diplomats who were in Buenos Aires at the time of the bombing as the architects of the attack. He also reportedly alleges that Iran has used its large mission in Venezuela, a fellow OPEC member, to establish terrorist cells in other Latin American countries. Iran, which denies any connection to the bombings, calls Moatamer a criminal and an impostor. Still, Argentina is considering breaking relations with the Islamic republic.
As usual, the one public claim of responsibility seemed suspect. A communique claimed the Latin American bombings in the name of Ansarollah, or the Partisans of God. That's a tiny group made up mainly of former PLO fighters linked to Sheik Subhi Tufayli, one of the most radical members of Hizbullah. But the London Sunday Telegraph reported that intelligence sources believe Iran hired Imad Moughneyeh to carry out all the bombings. Moughneyeh was blamed for holding U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Israel's response to the bombings so far has been to urge Western nations -- particularly in Europe -- to pressure Iran economically and turn out members of the fundamentalist groups. The cabinet last week also promised to "act to assist in the capture and punishment of the criminals," a statement left purposely vague, ministers said, to leave all options open.
Will a new round of reprisals wreck the Mideast peace process? It's doubtful. Just one year ago secret negotiations between the PLO and Israel moved toward a breakthrough even as Israel bombarded villages in south Lebanon to punish Hizbullah. The new attacks represent the latest twist in a parallel road -- what Rabin calls an "all-out war" between Israel and radical fundamentalists funded by Iran. The body count may grow, but the peace process has taken on a life of its own.