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In Israel, an Aura of Toughness Tempers a Lack of Security

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SCOTT NELSON/AFP

Palestinian policemen hose an armored vehicle rocketed by Israelis

TIME.com: Israel has in recent days launched sustained attacks on Palestinian Authority targets throughout the West Bank and Gaza, saying these are a "pro-active" response to continuing Palestinian attacks. What is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy?

Matt Rees: Since Sharon came into office, Israeli forces have pursued a policy of targeting Palestinian paramilitary police and other forces accused of mounting attacks on Israelis, in the hope of making the cost of continuing the intifada too high for Arafat and the men around him who are held responsible for leading a lot of the guerrilla fighting going on. But while the strategy is designed to make the cost of continuing to fight too high for the Palestinians, it doesn't seem to be having that effect. With Tuesday marking the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel — an event called "Al Nakbah" (the catastrophe) by Palestinians — they're expecting trouble all over the West Bank and Gaza, and possibly even among Arab communities inside Israel. Still, Sharon has chosen the route of ratcheting up the pressure on Arafat, and he's not likely to change that decision.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza appear to be emerging as a point of contention between Israel and the U.S. Washington has called on Israel to freeze settlement activity, in line with the recommendations of a Jordanian-Egyptian cease-fire proposal and also the conclusion of the Mitchell Report into the causes of the current violence. Yet Israel is strongly opposed to a blanket freeze on settlement activityů

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is currently trying to find a way around that by saying Israel won't build new settlements, just build more structures within the borders of existing settlements. But the thing Palestinians don't trust about the Israeli idea of "natural growth" of these settlements is that it has often meant expanding a settlement's territory from one hill to the next. And when that happens, for the Palestinians that's another hill lost, and another set of valleys around that hill subject to all kinds of restrictions. So for the Palestinians, "natural growth" is a non-starter. Peres is trying to find a way of reining in the settlements without truly freezing them, which is something Sharon wouldn't accept.

Indeed, Sharon has been a long-time advocate of expanding settlementsů

And if he could afford to politically, that is what he'd do. But he's not in a very easy position, both because of diplomatic pressure because of pressure from his coalition allies in the Labor Party. He's hoping Peres will find some sort of diplomatic formulation that will let them get around the call for a settlement freeze. Otherwise, he looks as if he's prepared to brass it out. Israel has faced the same criticism over settlements from both the Clinton administration and the previous Bush administration. But the difference is that those Israeli governments weren't faced with such severe violence.

So Sharon has a certain advantage in that he can point to Palestinian violence and say that has nothing to do with settlements. That's disingenuous, of course, because the intifada has everything to do with land and settlements. That's something even many Israelis acknowledge. While Arafat betrayed the spirit of Oslo by preaching violence, and inciting his people against Israel, they say that Israel betrayed the spirit of Oslo by expanding settlements much faster than "natural growth" birth rate, encouraging people to go and live on them.

Israelis voted for Sharon because he promised them security. So, do they feel safer now than they did six months ago, and will this have any impact on his political fortunes?

No, I don't believe Israelis do feel safer than they did six months ago, but that won't affect Sharon's standing. On security, the fact that he appears to be doing something and acting resolutely is more important than the success or failure of the things he is doing. Israelis lost confidence in Ehud Barak because he appeared to be dithering, doing this one day, that the next day, instead of pursuing a clear policy such as Sharon's. Doing something about security is not the same as delivering security, but if you're seen to be acting tough on security threats you're perceived by many Israelis as being strong on security — whether or not your strategy actually delivers. So he's not under any public pressure to make things easier on Palestinians. That was the basic miscalculation of the Palestinians in the first place — thinking that Israelis would weaken their position if they felt threatened. Instead, the result has been directly the opposite.