Sharon's Game

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

In the Middle East, where hatreds are measured in generations and a long weekend of peace counts as a triumph, the gap between dreams and reality is deep. In the 10 days following a historic meeting at the Jordanian town of Aqaba among President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas — a meeting full of promise and fine words — five Israeli soldiers and 18 civilians were killed by Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers, and 23 Palestinians were killed by Israeli missile attacks designed to eradicate the leadership of the terrorist group Hamas. Of the Palestinians killed, 14 were civilians, including the wife and baby daughter of Yasser Taha, whom the Israelis described as a Hamas activist. The death toll might have been higher; on June 10 an Israeli missile attack on vehicles in Gaza wounded but did not kill Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a longtime leader of Hamas, which, according to Israeli figures, is responsible for the deaths of 287 Israelis since September 2000.

In Washington officials who had been pleased, with reason, by the way Bush's trip to the Middle East had been received, were relearning the old lesson: the long dispute between Israelis and Palestinians will not be solved by leaders' handshakes in the sunshine. In particular, the Administration was coming to terms with the fact that Israel is led by a man with his own very specific sense of how his country's security can be guaranteed. For Sharon, peace is an outcome some-times best delivered with a mailed fist. Since Bush has staked his reputation on being evenhanded between the Israelis and Palestinians as they progress along a road map toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, Sharon's actions are a challenge. After the attempt to kill Rantisi, which left two dead in Gaza, Bush went further than ever before in criticizing Sharon's actions. "I am troubled by the recent Israeli helicopter gunship attacks," said Bush. "I regret the loss of innocent life. I also don't believe that the attacks help Israeli security."

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The toughness of Bush's statement, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources, was easily explained. By attempting to kill Rantisi, they say, Sharon had violated an undertaking that he had given Bush before Aqaba and reiterated there. Sharon, say these sources, had indicated that henceforth Israel would commit assassinations only in the case of a "ticking time bomb"--understood, on the American side, to mean a terrorist on his way to an attack. Administration sources doubt that Rantisi filled the bill. "Sure, we'll stipulate the guy's a terrorist," says a White House official. "Was he going to be responsible for a known attack? That's not clear." Sharon adviser Ra'anan Gissin says Rantisi was targeted because Sharon had received intelligence that he had organized the attack two days earlier on an Israeli army outpost in the Gaza Strip in which four Israeli soldiers died. This week Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weissglass, is scheduled to visit Washington to discuss the understanding on assassinations with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "What we thought we had worked out, we need to tweak a little," says the White House official.

"Tweaking," however, is not a concept one normally associates with Sharon. The Prime Minister, 75, is not a subtle man. At Aqaba, his statement started not with hopeful words on the proximity of peace but with this: "My paramount responsibility is the security of the people of Israel and of the state of Israel. There can be no compromise with terror. And Israel, together with all free nations, will continue fighting terrorism until its final defeat."

After a suicide bomber in Jerusalem killed 17 people the day after the failed hit on Rantisi, Sharon told his Cabinet ministers, according to Gissin, "Jewish blood can't come cheap. We aren't going to be put on the altar of the road map." Gissin maintains that Sharon's revulsion to terrorist attacks on Jewish civilians dates from the 1950s, when there were frequent lethal penetrations of Israel from the West Bank, then controlled by Jordan. Sharon, a young army officer, took command of Unit 101, a counterterrorism outfit that launched reprisal attacks on Palestinian villages there. In 1953 one such attack on the village of Qibya led to the deaths of 69 people, half of them women and children, and provoked widespread international condemnation.

Criticism from outside Israel, however, has rarely deflected Sharon from his chosen path. For the Prime Minister and Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic-security service, there is no contradiction between espousing the road map and hammering Hamas. Leaders of Hamas — like Rantisi — rejected the road map and vowed to continue the fight against Israel. If they make that decision, Sharon will see that they pay the consequences. The security forces of the Palestinian Authority — divided between those who support the road map and those who do not — are, as yet, too weak to control Hamas. Abbas, said Sharon at a Cabinet meeting last week, is like "a chick that hasn't grown its feathers." Addressing the Palestinian Authority's complaints about the Rantisi strike, Sharon, according to Gissin, told his ministers, "If the Palestinians don't like it, we offered them an alternative: to start taking care of business themselves." In the meantime, Sharon is determined to do Abbas' job for him. Someone, in his view, must. Late last week Israeli security sources told TIME that since the Aqaba summit, they had arrested 10 suicide bombers in various stages of planning attacks and that almost all the intercepted bombers belonged to Hamas.

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