News Analysis: Kenyan rescue gives Israel respite from peace pressure

JERUSALEM — Cynical though it may sound, the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have provided a boost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, tragic as the bombings were, the effect extends beyond the premier, who has been buffeted between coalition moderates and hardliners and has been a constant target of American and international pressure.

The carnage in Nairobi has provided a welcome respite from the pressures the state of Israel as a whole has felt regarding the long-stalled peace process.

Suddenly, thanks to the speed and efficiency of the Israel Defense Force's emergency rescue unit, Israelis this week were reliving the country's good times, periods when the Jewish state basked in the warm glow of international admiration. Israel, in fact, was finding itself praised in the world's headlines.

Israel's teams of medical personnel, rescue experts and rubble clearers were credited with bringing order to the chaos after they arrived on the scene in the Kenyan capital where a powerful blast last Friday left more than 200 dead and about 5,000 wounded.

By Saturday the Israelis were saving lives. Sunday, they were pulling survivors whom all had given up for dead from the bombed-out ruins — and the rescue work continued throughout the week.

Shortly after the near-simultaneous explosions were detonated last Friday, 150 members of the IDF's Rescue Unit were dispatched to the Kenyan capital. Within six hours of its arrival, the unit had rescued its first survivor.

Word quickly spread in Nairobi that the Israelis had arrived. Hundreds of Kenyans soon appeared at the blast site to watch the Jewish state's teams at work.

The IDF unit brought special equipment, including heavy-duty balloons, jackhammers and cutters capable of lifting and slicing through tons of debris.

Israeli military and civilian doctors who also flew in toiled in the overflowing Nairobi hospital wards and operating theaters.

Back home, the Israeli media displayed the rescuers' prowess on page after page, newscast after newscast. There was, it seemed, a whiff of Entebbe in the sweltering midsummer air as Israel suffered through its worst heat wave in five years.

"Under these difficult circumstances, IDF soldiers have once again become the PR people of the state of Israel," the Israeli daily Ma'ariv wrote in an editorial. "Their contribution to the image of Israel in the world is worth incomparably more than another series of speeches condemning terrorism."

For a change, the IDF was not being lambasted abroad or debated at home for its activities in the West Bank. It was not losing young lives in the seemingly endless imbroglio in southern Lebanon.

Instead, the IDF was demonstrating a flash of its old brilliance and style that had won Israeli soldiers international admiration — as on July 3, 1976, when the IDF traveled to Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue hijacked hostages.

That exhilarating episode left Israel with an open debt to Kenya, which it has now been able to repay.

It was Kenya that discreetly put its ground facilities at the disposal of the Israeli airborne operation to stop and refuel on the way back from Entebbe.

The speed and willingness with which Israel sprang to Kenya's aid last weekend reflects a commitment to a two-decades-old memory that is still fresh.

Beyond the humanitarian aspect of the Israeli rescue effort and the demonstration of its logistical prowess for all the world to see, the double bombings have also given Israel an opportunity to put its own rich intelligence assets at the disposal of the international community in the hunt for the perpetrators.

This, too, has earned the Jewish state kudos.

It is still too early to blame definitively any Islamic terror groups for the attacks. But the initial, instinctive finger of suspicion is pointed in their direction.

Anti-American threats by extremist groups in the Muslim world, published shortly before the bombings, have fed these suspicions even though terrorism experts say such warnings are everyday occurrences.

Israel, moreover, is never omitted from the litany of these groups' loathing. Vicariously, therefore, Israel has also been victimized by the bombings — and benefits from pro-victim sympathy.

For Netanyahu, still wavering over a U.S. proposal for a further redeployment in the West Bank, the blasts serve two convenient purposes:

*They take the diplomatic heat off, at least temporarily.

*They focus attention on Islamic terrorism.

The heat — in the form of relentless American pressure to get on with the difficult decision-making — had pushed the premier into an awkward corner at home.

To go ahead with a redeployment would mean risking a showdown with Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, the National Religious Party and other coalition hardliners who oppose the 13.1 percent pullback figure proposed by the United States and accepted by the Palestinian Authority.

But to keep deferring the moment of decision was increasingly courting a crisis with The Third Way Party, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and other moderates in the government.

Now, with Washington's attention riveted on Africa, Israeli officials heaved a metaphorical sigh of relief.

Having reached the end of July — and the end of the Knesset session — without making a decision on the redeployment, Netanyahu can now look toward the rest of the summer with a fair amount of confidence that he will be able to continue avoiding the moment of truth.

And indeed, peace negotiations once again appear to be on hold.

Israeli-Palestinian talks were suspended last week in the wake of the murder of two Jewish settlers in the West Bank and the failure of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to condemn the terror attack.

Israeli officials said there was little separating the two sides when the talks were halted, a claim roundly denied by the Palestinians.

In recent days, Arafat has sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright two letters urging the United States to put more pressure on Israel.

American officials, in turn, have indicated that U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross would return to the region within the next two weeks, but only if there were some signs of progress in the negotiations.

But with Arafat flying off for a state visit to South Africa this week, and Netanyahu on vacation next week, there appeared to be little basis for believing that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would be making any headway soon.