ANALYSIS / Why Did the Attack on a Well-known Leftist Professor Happen Now?

Attack may be an attempt to intimidate new Kadima Head Tzipi Livni out of trying to cut a deal with the PA.

Having devoted much of his academic work to studying fascist movements, Prof. Zeev Sternhell will probably not be surprised by the identity of those who placed the pipe bomb at his door Thursday. Quasi-fascist groups exist on the fringes of Israel's right, and it seems likely that Sternhell's assailants came from these circles.

This attack returns us to darker days: From the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, right-wing attacks on leftists were more frequent. The worrisome question - beyond the identity of the attackers, which will apparently soon be clear - is why now.

The pamphlets found outside Sternhell's home link the attack to his activities in Peace Now and threaten the movement's leaders. But Peace Now, in its 2008 version, is barely a shadow of its former self. This is not the movement that brought tens of thousands into the streets to protest the First Lebanon War and the settlements. What pressed the right's buttons now, of all times, and why was Peace Now a target?

An analysis by the Shin Bet security service, which was presented to the government and reported in Haaretz last December, predicted a steep rise in right-wing violence - against Palestinians, the security forces and, to a lesser extent, the Israel left - if a rise in Palestinian terror against West Bank settlers combined with fear of an evacuation of settlements. Yet neither factor is currently evident. Palestinian terror may be rising, but not in the West Bank; Jerusalem has been far more dangerous recently. And all the talk of shelf agreements has not yet removed one outpost.

Nevertheless, recent weeks have seen an increase in both the number and severity of violent incidents by right-wing extremists. The attack on Sternhell follows Yitzhar residents' rampage through Asira al-Kabaliya and attacks by settlers on soldiers at the Yad Yair outpost and in Hebron.

Why now? This may be an attempt to intimidate the government as Tzipi Livni replaces Ehud Olmert, for fear that the new premier will try to reach an agreement with the Palestinians quickly. Another explanation is the transformation the extreme right has undergone following the disengagement and the evacuation of Amona: It now has far fewer inhibitions about using violence.

The security forces' struggle against violent zealots on the right has suffered in the past from two main problems: restrictions on investigating Israelis (as opposed to the great freedom these forces have in investigating Palestinians), and leniency by the courts. In 2001-02, a Jewish terror group murdered at least seven Palestinians in the West Bank, but no one was prosecuted. The Bat Ayin cell, which placed explosives near Palestinian schools, was arrested, but the murderers who operated on the roads are still at large. The Shin Bet still believes it had the culprits in its interrogation rooms, but their refusal to talk saved them from indictment.

This time, the nut may prove easier to crack. Experts do not use pipe bombs; the goal seems to have been to intimidate and create a media stir. If so, the law may find it easier to nab the culprits.

But clemency on the part of judges is a thornier problem, one that will make this month especially difficult: The olive harvest is starting in the West Bank, and numerous incidents between settlers and Palestinian farmers are likely.