New Violence Deepens Sharon's Crisis

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon's tanks may not have moved from Yasser Arafat's doorstep in two months, and his tanks and planes are pulverizing Palestinian targets, but it's the Israeli leader who now appears to be under siege. Israeli forces killed some 16 Palestinians Wednesday in raids across the West Bank and Gaza, as Sharon's administration launched what it called a "counter-guerrilla war" in the Palestinian territories. Nine Palestinians were killed the previous day in retaliation for a dramatic guerrilla attack that killed six Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint near Ramallah. More than 40 people have died in a spasm of bloodletting since Monday, from which two simple facts emerged: Palestinian militants have honed the sophistication and focus of their armed actions to maximum military and political effect; and the strategies pursued until now by Sharon have patently failed to bring Israelis the security he promised on the campaign trail. The Israeli electorate is acutely aware of it all.

The latest attacks continued a grim downturn in the fortunes of the Israeli Defense Force in the West Bank and Gaza over the past week. Tuesday night's casualty count will be made more painful by the fact that it followed last Friday's loss of a heavily-armored Merkava-3 battle tank and three of its crewmen to a sophisticated roadside bomb in Gaza. On the same day, the commander of Israel's most feared unit on the West Bank died under the collapsing wall of a house being destroyed by his forces. The escalating body count underscores the new reality: that Hamas has in recent weeks managed to deploy homemade, remote-control rockets that can be fired into Israel, and that Palestinian militants now are waging a full-blown guerrilla war with multiple attacks on a daily basis.

The latest attacks also appear calculated to maximize political divisions inside Israel: Instead of dispatching suicide bombers on terror missions in the heart of Israel's cities, the attacks of the past week have focused on the symbols of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — soldiers and settlers outside of Israel's pre-1967 borders. And that may be a conscious strategy to avoid driving the Israelis to circle the wagons around Sharon. Israel's deteriorating security and economic situation has sent the prime minister's approval ratings plummeting to 48 percent from a high of around 70 percent. From the right, he's facing calls to reoccupy all of the West Bank and Gaza, with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking to ride a wave of hawkish anger back into the top job. But from the left, he's facing increasingly assertive calls for Israel to end the occupation altogether. That call was echoed from the center this week when a group comprising 1,000 top echelon reserve officers began campaigning for a withdrawal from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, recognition of a Palestinian state and immediate, unconditional negotiation.

The reserve officers' call is echoed by a peace plan being touted by Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and Arafat aide Ahmed Kurei, as well as of various proposals emanating from the European Union and the Arab world. U.S. officials have been particularly interested in a proposal by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah to offer Israel full normalization of relations with the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Sharon has been conspicuously silent on actual peace plans, confining his diplomatic efforts to pressing Washington to add Yasser Arafat to its "axis of evil" column. And as the crisis escalates, that has left a growing number of Israelis doubting whether their prime minister has any long-term plan.

Ironically, while Sharon's popularity has plummeted in the two months he's kept Arafat under siege, the Palestinian leader's domestic approval rating has jumped over the same period, according to a Bir Zeit University survey, from 38 percent to 52 percent. Turns out that two months of virtual house arrest by the Israelis has been something of a political tonic for the Palestinian leader, his fortunes rising as long as he's allowed to play the victim. And the sharp uptick of violence appears to have reminded a growing number of Israelis that regardless of Arafat's status, resolving the problem of the occupation remains at the center of their conflict with the Palestinians. Arafat and Sharon have both been playing a waiting game since the Israeli leader's election a year ago. Now Sharon is threatening to up the ante, and Arafat is sounding more defiant than ever. But the bloody stalemate may be proving more untenable for the Israeli leader than for his archenemy.