Israel this week is weighing the interim results of the largest military operation it has mounted during the past 13 months of violence. The balance is complex, informed observers say, with both pros and cons. Israel Defense Force (IDF) troops and tanks pulled back from Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem, overnight Sunday, after a day in which Palestinians desisted from shooting at the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
IDF generals reached a detailed agreement with the commander of the Palestinian Authority preventive security service, Jibril Rajoub, that his men would take over the policing of the "front line" and ensure that it remained quiet. By midweek, that local accord appeared to be holding.
The three members of the inner security cabinet -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer -- presumably hoped that withdrawing from the Christian holy city of Bethlehem would alleviate some of the criticism that Israel's armored incursions into the seven Palestinian cities was stirring abroad.
TV footage of the damage and destruction the IDF had wrought in the two towns and adjacent refugee camps, shown Monday in many Western countries, did little to relieve Israel's image problem.
And its continued defiance of American demands that it pull out of all the Palestinian cities -- the others are Ramallah, Kalkilya, Jenin, Nabulus and Tulkarm, all in the West Bank north of Jerusalem -- plainly grated on the Bush administration.
But some observers here suggested that the feud was not as bad as portrayed. For one thing, after the initial heated reaction, the language used in American statements was relatively restrained. For another, the spat was confined to words, with no hint of punitive action. And for a third, these observers say, Israel was demonstrating to the Palestinians, and to the wider region, that it has the strength and guts to stand up to Washington when its vital interests are at stake.
In addition, the unrest may have stirred the beginnings of real diplomatic activity. The longer the troops stay inside Palestinian-ruled areas, the more pressure grows inside the Labor Party to leave the government. Reflecting these pressures -- or perhaps heading them off -- Peres let it be known midweek that he is drafting a new peace plan to get the diplomatic process moving again.
According to a report in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, the plan calls on Israel to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip, dismantling settlements where about 7,000 Israelis live amid a hostile Palestinian population. Peres also envisions a Palestinian state that would be "political, not military," and the deferment of the status of Jerusalem for a period of years.
Even Sharon had spoken positively of a Palestinian state just days before Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi was killed. The assassination effectively ending a string of minor, but positive, steps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, plunging the region back into violence.
According to The Associated Press, Peres' spokesman, Yoram Dori, confirmed that the foreign minister was "preparing a peace plan" to be released in coming days. "Whether Sharon agrees or not, he will have to say," Dori said.
Indeed, some pundits speculated that, if it contains elements Sharon opposes, the Peres plan might hasten the downfall of the unity government. Until Peres releases his plan, however, Israelis were left debating whether the IDF operation really had served vital national interests.
Official spokesmen explained last week that the incursions aimed to arrest or kill terrorists and to prevent or preempt planned attacks.
Military sources say at least 40 terrorists and suspected terrorists have been arrested, and some 20 were killed in encounters with elite units. IDF officials initially claimed that Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian involved in the Oct. 17 assassination of Ze'evi were apprehended, though later claims contradicted that. The two men believed to have actually carried out the murder remain at large.
But two drive-by terror shootings on Sunday undercut the assertion that IDF occupation of Palestinian cities is effective in blocking assaults. The killers in the two attacks came from Tulkarm and Jenin. The first killing was claimed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, the second by Islamic Jihad.
The claims reflected widespread resistance to Arafat's public orders to the various Palestinian military and paramilitary groupings, and to the opposition factions, that it was in the Palestinians' national interest to observe a cease-fire. Although in another major address, to trade unionists in Gaza, Arafat gave precisely the opposite message, calling on the Palestinians "to continue fighting -- fighting, determinedly and forcefully."
Arafat repeatedly has spurned Israel's demand to hand over Ze'evi's killers. Israel has received no real backing from the United States or the rest of the international community for the demand, which many see as an unrealistic stumbling block to the diplomatic process.
At best, Israel may make do with a proposed international monitoring mechanism -- details of which are still vague -- designed to ensure that terrorists arrested by the Palestinian Authority do not shortly walk out the other side of a "revolving door."
Politically, at least, the operation in the West Bank seems to have benefited Sharon. Its scope seems to have assuaged Ze'evi's National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction, which has indefinitely deferred an earlier decision to quit the government.
On Tuesday, Knesset member Benny Elon took over as Ze'evi's replacement. For Sharon, who, is fighting to hold his coalition together and ward off incessant criticism from his Likud Party rival Benjamin Netanyahu, this is a gratifying development.
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