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Sharon Fights Time

Israel's prime minister feels the pinch as terror rises.

by David Landau

March 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, accompanied by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezar, right, and Chief of Staff Shaol Mofaz, center, take a look at the area around the Tarkumia safe passage crossing during his visit to the Israel Defense Force base on March 6. Photo by Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, accompanied by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezar, right, and Chief of Staff Shaol Mofaz, center, take a look at the area around the Tarkumia safe passage crossing during his visit to the Israel Defense Force base on March 6. Photo by Getty Images

A surge in violence this week cost more than two dozen Israelis their lives -- and put Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's political life increasingly at peril.

A year after Sharon took office with a pledge to restore security, Israelis were besieged with terror that seemed to come from every direction and with almost every weapon -- suicide bombings, sniper shots, Kassam missiles and stabbings.

Sharon's response? Hit the Palestinians again, and harder.

On Monday, Sharon said the Palestinians must be dealt a blow so severe that they will finally understand that terror damages their cause.

Only then, he said, may the Palestinians be convinced to abandon violence and return to the negotiating table.

Israelis, however, are increasingly dubious that Sharon can lead them out of the present impasse. Public opinion polls show Sharon's approval ratings plummeting from the highs he enjoyed for most of his first year in office, with a majority of respondents now saying they do not have confidence in his leadership.

In addition, a Saudi Arabian peace initiative, endorsed on Tuesday by Syria, threatens to expose the gap between Sharon's goals and the Bush administration's vision of Mideast peace, setting up a potential confrontation between Jerusalem and Washington.

Never formally presented but gathering steam nonetheless, the Saudi initiative calls for the Arab world to make peace with Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from all land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Washington has welcomed the initiative and is exploring it, while Sharon said this week said that a return to those borders -- which leaves Israel just nine miles wide at its most populated point -- would endanger the country's security.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized Israeli policy earlier this week at a Congressional hearing. "Prime Minister Sharon has to take a hard look at his policies, to see whether they will work," he said.

On Wednesday, President George Bush met with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak , but offered no new plans for U.S. intervention.

With the death toll rising precipitously this week, an opinion poll by the influential Tami Steinmetz Center at Tel Aviv University showed a steep drop -- from more than 40 percent to just 26 percent -- in the number of Israelis who agree with Sharon that "Israel can change the situation by the use of more military force."

At the same time, however, only 27 percent believe that diplomacy can resolve the conflict, as Labor Party Foreign Minister Shimon Peres proposes.

If those messages seem contradictory, it's no accident.

After nearly 18 months, the increasingly bloody Palestinian intifada shows no signs of abating, and more people on both sides are describing the deteriorating conflict as outright war.

At a Security Cabinet meeting last week, differences among the country's top policy-makers became starkly evident.

Sharon reiterated his determination to strike hard at the Palestinians, but he had to shelve a proposal to send Israeli tanks back to besiege Arafat's office in Ramallah in the face of strong opposition from the defense minister and Labor Party leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

The quarrels around the Cabinet table are compounding the worry and despair that is permeating the Israeli public.

Political commentators predict that the longevity of the unity government is in doubt as the violence spirals.

On top of the unrelenting security crisis that stalks the streets of every Israeli city, citizens this week had to contemplate the daunting prospect of political instability -- and, possibly, early elections.

The interministerial disputes also exacerbate a widely held concern that the politicians, both in the unity government and in the opposition, have no workable policy to offer.

Sharon himself, in a series of briefings and comments Monday, told Knesset members and reporters that there is "no diplomatic outlook at this time, only a military outlook."

The explicit denial of any diplomatic strategy could help Sharon fend off the remorseless pressure he faces from the right -- led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- that wants him to topple the Palestinian Authority and root out the terrorist infrastructure it has cultivated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In recent weeks, Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement has emerged as the principal terrorist group in the Palestinian areas, carrying out most of the attacks in the West Bank and inside Israel proper.

That drops the pretense of moderation that Fatah cultivated during the peace process, when it routinely was contrasted to the "militants" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad that Arafat claimed he sought vainly to control.

Increasingly, the barrenness of Sharon's diplomatic field ups the pressure on the Labor Party to secede from the unity government.

The Bush administration has been loathe to intervene as the violence escalated; its admonishments of Israel have been distinctly low-key, while it consistently has blamed Arafat and the Palestinian Authority for not doing enough to curb terror.

By midweek, however, there were signs of growing American unrest.

The Ha'aretz newspaper reported that Powell discussed with Sharon the possibility of sending the U.S. peace envoy, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, back to the region. In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday there was nothing new to report on Zinni. "He will go back when it's appropriate and useful," he said.

American policy-makers also want Israel to allow Arafat to travel to an Arab League summit in late March in Beirut, where the Saudi Arabian proposal may be discussed. If Israel prevents Arafat from going, his absence likely will become the focus of the summit, to the advantage of the more hard-line Arab states.

Building up its military and diplomatic forces for a possible showdown with Iraq's Saddam Hussein later this year, Washington is anxious that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not spiral even further out of control and spread to other fronts.

That might deter more moderate Arab states from supporting, or at least condoning, American action against Iraq. The worsening security situation therefore could trigger some intervention by Washington ahead of the Arab summit. Possibly, some observers here say, both bloodied protagonists want that to happen, though only the Palestinian side will admit it publicly.

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