WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- Within hours of Thursday's terrorist bomb attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kenya, Hercules C-130 transporters were trundling down the runway at Mombasa airport, bringing in Israeli medical teams, and military and intelligence personnel.
Israel had been thrust into the heart of the U.S.-led war on terrorism -- something the Bush administration has been trying to prevent.
There was still no confirmation Friday as to who was responsible for the suicide bombing of the beachfront hotel. At least 15 were killed, including three young Israeli tourists, and some 80 were injured.
Also unknown is the hand behind the simultaneous surface-to-air rockets fired at an Israeli charter plane as it took off from Mombasa airport. But the immediate reaction of some terrorism experts was that the hotel attack bore the hallmarks of a carefully planned operation by Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist organization.
They compared it to the devastating nightclub bombing in Bali last month in which 180 tourists perished, mostly Australians, and which the Indonesian authorities have linked to the tentacular terrorist organization.
If the Paradise bombing is the work of al Qaida, it will be the first time the terrorist organization has carried out an attack against Israelis.
It will also bear out recent declarations purporting to come from Saudi-born renegade bin Laden and other senior al Qaida figures that Israelis would be targeted because of their government's treatment of the Palestinians.
But even if the attack is not conclusively linked to al Qaida, it will still have drawn the Israelis into a wider war on terrorism -- George Bush's war, as distinct from the endless bloodletting at home in Israel against Palestinian militant groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
As stunned Israelis learned of the bombing on Thursday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ron Posser, warned, "We're not in the blame game yet." But Defense Minister Shaul Mofez declared, "Our long arm will get (those responsible)" -- a reminder that Israel does not let such acts go unpunished either at home or abroad. Israeli press reports said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had ordered the Mossad, Israel's intelligence organization, to start an immediate investigation.
With an election in January, Sharon will be more eager than ever to strike back at the group responsible, whichever one it may be. This effort will create a distraction at a time when the Bush administration wants to keep world attention focussed on Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
An Israeli retaliation against al Qaida, or any other terrorist group for that matter, is likely to complicate U.S. plans for an eventual attack on Iraq in another respect.
So far, the U.S.-led mission against Iraq has relied on willing support of Britain and some other European allies (Spain and Italy, for example) and the tacit backing of moderate Arab states.
To boost its legitimacy, Bush has included the anti-Iraq offensive in the context of the war on terrorism. But if Israel becomes a de facto participant, strategic Arab states whose logistical support would be vital in any military action may withdraw their cooperation.
Earlier this year, Bush had secured Sharon's commitment that, in the event of an attack on Iraq, the Israelis would stay out of the fray -- unless Israel was itself attacked. Following the Mombasa bombing, however, all bets are probably off.
There was a hint of the administration's dilemma in Bush's comments on the Paradise that had turned into hell Thursday. After "deploring" the attack, he warned against rushing to judgment. The White House statement quoted Bush as saying that it was "premature to rule al Qaida in or out in relation to the attack."
That's the nicest thing he's ever said about the terrorist organization that is held responsible for last year's Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.