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The P.L.O. quickly denied that it had anything to do with last week's airport assaults. Arafat in November denounced terrorist activities outside Israeli-occupied territory. But in Tel Aviv, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin claimed that the newest attacks showed that "the Palestinian terrorist organizations are trying to reach us and harm us wherever they can." Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Avi Pazner warned that "Israel will continue its struggle against terrorism in every place and at any time that it sees fit."
There was little doubt that Israel would strike back. The only real questions were how soon and against what targets.
"You bet the Israelis are going to retaliate," observed a top-ranking U.S. intelligence official. "It was an attack aimed against them, and they will not let this go by." One possible target is Abu Nidal's main base at Tripoli, Libya. He is also reported to have a base on the outskirts of Damascus. A retaliatory raid there would seriously challenge the Syrian air force.
Israel last week accused Syria's President Haffez Assad of replacing Soviet SA-6 and SA-8 antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon. Syria had deployed such weapons there in 1981, only to have them destroyed by the Israelis during their 1982 invasion. The redeployment into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley was made late in November after Israeli war planes had shot down two Syrian jets over Syria. An Israeli army spokesman disclosed the missile move publicly on Dec. 15. Other Israeli officials contended that the U.S. had secretly persuaded Assad to withdraw them. Assad did so but, showing his muscle in the region, abruptly sent the weapons back into the Bekaa just two days later. That move was announced by Peres. The impasse led Defense Minister Rabin to declare ominously, "Israel will reserve to itself the ways, the means and the time to cope with this problem." Israel thus seemed poised to deal with both the missiles and the terrorist attacks, perhaps simultaneously.
Another coincidence complicated the retaliation possibilities. Assad had invited Jordan's King Hussein to meet with him in Damascus early this week, the first such get-together in six years. The two have been feuding since 1980, partly over the Camp David peace plan. Some Western diplomats believe that Hussein was willing to go to Damascus to try to preserve his role in the process, which has been stalled by Arafat's refusal to recognize Israel. By meeting with Assad, who has ties with anti-Arafat P.L.O. dissidents, Hussein may hope to prod Arafat into a compromise. Assad, however, seems determined to block any agreement among Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians. The Israelis, clearly nervous about the meeting, had to weigh the impact that any retaliatory strike into Lebanon or Syria might have on the two leaders. The consequences could be unpredictable and serious, but after last week's terror, no one could rule out such a strike.
The airport terrorism was especially unsettling to Italy and Austria, which have developed relatively good relations with the P.L.O. in recent years. In addition, the tactic of shooting up an airport area that anyone can enter without going through personal and baggage screening troubled officials who supervise airport security. "We can move passenger check-ins further away from airports," said Vienna's Lord Mayor Helmut Zilk. "But we can't keep them secret."