Crisis Forces New Tactics on Sharon, Arafat

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An Israeli soldier mans a checkpoint in the West Bank refugee camp of Kalandia

Under siege from both sides of his government and desperate to prop up Israelis' sagging morale, Ariel Sharon is mixing his messages. In response to two painful Palestinian hits on Israeli military targets in the West Bank and Gaza, Sharon's army pounded Palestinian targets for two days last week and fired a missile directly into the Ramallah compound where Yasser Arafat remains under virtual house arrest. And in a speech to the nation on Thursday he vowed to build "buffer zones to achieve security separation" between Israelis and Palestinians. But a day later he ordered his army to avoid initiating military action in the West Bank and Gaza for seven days, following a deal brokered with Palestinian security chiefs. And his security cabinet meets Sunday to discuss lifting the travel ban on the Palestinian leader, after three men wanted for the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister were arrested on Arafat's orders.

Arafat, however, is not about to make things easier for Sharon. In a politically savvy shift, the militias of his own Fatah organization have lately been concentrating their fire on Israeli soldiers and settlers outside of the Jewish State's 1967 borders. The reasoning behind the new focus has long been articulated by the likes of Fatah militia leader Marwan Barghouti: Suicide bombings inside Israel unite Israelis, and focus international pressure on restraining Palestinian terror. But attacks on symbols of the occupation — such as settlements and military checkpoints — may be perceived differently, both by many Israelis and by most of the international community.

The militants' strategy takes its cue from Lebanon, where Hezbollah's low-intensity war eventually forced Israel out by rendering the cost of remaining there unbearable. Of course, Israel is a lot more invested in the West Bank than it was in Lebanon — for one thing, up to 200,000 Israelis have settled there since the territory was captured in 1967. Also, the Palestinians lack the ready access to sophisticated weaponry Hezbollah enjoyed throughout its 18-year campaign. But the Israeli Defense Force was a lot less vulnerable in Lebanon than it may soon be in the West Bank and Gaza, where its forces are dispersed to defend some 145 settlements and to encircle scores of Palestinian population centers. Such vulnerability only increases when the IDF is sent inside those population centers in pursuit of Palestinian suspects.

The distinction between Israel and its occupied territories is gaining increasing importance in Israel's domestic politics. The call to "separate" from the Palestinians enjoys growing support from the political center and the left in Israel. The terms and boundaries of such separation may vary in different proposals, but the shared premise is that Israel can't sustain the cost of maintaining the current pattern of occupation. The peace plan currently being touted by foreign minister Shimon Peres is based on the principle of Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders — and a Saudi proposal for normalization of Arab relations with Israel on that basis has been positively received by Washington.

As a longtime champion of the settlement movement, Sharon remains fiercely opposed to withdrawal to the 1967 borders. But neither his Labor Party coalition partners nor the U.S. would countenance him meeting the demands of his right-wing allies to destroy Arafat's administration and reoccupy its territory. That leaves Sharon between a rock and a hard place, with his approval rating plummeting — in a poll published Friday in Israel's largest daily, only 38 percent of respondents approved of Sharon's handling of the intifada.

Arafat may be hoping that an upsurge of violence confined to the West Bank and Gaza will deepen Sharon's crisis, and force the Bush administration to resume its stalled mediation efforts — particularly in light of the Iraq factor. The Saudis and other pro-Western Arab leaders have warned the U.S. against initiating action against Iraq while the West Bank and Gaza are ablaze. And that creates an incentive for Washington to press for Israeli restraint in the interests of mustering maximum support against Saddam.

But the latest escalation of violence has also created political divisions in Arafat's camp, among some of the men routinely touted as his potential successors. Guerrilla warfare works for Barghouti, for example, because many of the gunmen report to him. Less so for Arafat's West Bank and Gaza security chiefs, Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, whose organizations bear the brunt of Israeli retaliation and whose authority is undermined by the existence of independent armed militias in their midst. To the exasperation of his gendarmes, Arafat has refrained from directly challenging the right of those militias to function, even though he periodically orders the arrest of men on Israels wanted list. And such ambiguity may signal his belief that if he plays his cards right, the current escalation of violence may work to his advantage.