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The new audio clip attributed yesterday to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq, cannot be brushed off as political manipulation on the part of the government, against the backdrop of the upcoming elections. Nor can it be viewed as another defense establishment spin ahead of the budget deliberations.

The threats voiced in the clip - believed by the defense establishment to be authentic - express well-known Al-Qaida sentiments, with Osama bin Laden reported to have instructed his activists to redirect the offensive toward the Near East. This trend also found expression in the field - in the recent terror attacks on the hotels in Amman, on the U.S. ship off the coast of Aqaba, and the tourism sites in Sinai.

And what should Israel do in the face of these threats?

Surprisingly, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz confessed yesterday to Israel's limitations in this regard, conceding that it was unlikely that Israel could achieve in a short period of time what the Americans have been unable to do thus far - namely, get to Bin Laden and other Al-Qaida leaders.

According to Halutz, the main lesson from it all is that the fight against terror, like the fight against the nuclearization of Iran, has to be an international effort in which Israel cannot take the lead. Only cooperation on the part of all the countries likely to be affected could yield results.

Thie chief of staff also sought to put into proportion the claim of responsibility for the Katyusha attack.

"When my mother hears that Al-Qaida fired from Lebanon, she immediately pictures Afghan horsemen charging toward us," he said, adding that Al-Qaida was more of a virtual entity than a real organization. "It is an umbrella that many organizations take cover under. Ultimately, we are concerned with a number of Palestinians who were once members of Organization A and when they weren't paid, they went over to work for Organization B. After all, it is the same 107mm Katyusha."

Presumably behind the Al-Qaida headline is a minor Palestinian faction, and it is unlikely that it received direct instructions from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Instead, it probably acted on the basis of contacts - via the Internet or other means - with one of the radical Islamic groups operating in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the general trend should worry Israel. Jewish communities around the world have been in the crosshairs of the Islamic fundamentalists for the past three years at least; and there are too many signs indicating that Al-Qaida and its offshoots are planning to expand their efforts to include Israel, too.

And herein lies another troubling aspect of the Iraqi-Lebanese connection: The widespread war that the various rebel groups are waging against the U.S. presence in Iraq is serving as an ideal seminar for testing weapons and innovative guerrilla tactics. One can assume that what the Americans are running into over there will soon reach this part of the world - along the northern border, in the territories, or in Israel itself.