Mideast Escalation Puts the Squeeze on Sharon

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A Palestinian paramedic is seen through the wreckage of a car

It doesn't take a clairvoyant to know that many more Israelis and Palestinians will die in the coming days and weeks — because the deaths of some 25 Israelis and 16 Palestinians over the past three days were morbidly predictable, too. Neither side can afford to be seen submitting to violence committed by the other. And that creates a dynamic where escalation begets escalation, with both the tempo and the casualty count rising quickly. But the political and diplomatic tides that had so favored Israeli leader Ariel Sharon in the three months following Sept. 11 may now have begun to shift behind his adversaries.

Following the deaths of 21 Israelis in two attacks at the weekend, Sharon promised "continuous military pressure" against the Palestinians and vowed that there could be no negotiations before the Palestinians are "badly beatenůso they get the thought out of their minds that they can impose an agreement on Israel that Israel does not want." Yet, Sharon remains strategically paralyzed. The international and domestic pressures that prevent him from launching a war to destroy Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority are mounting, but his orientation remains to seek a military victory before any sort of political process. Cabinet hawks demand that the military's full might be unleashed on the Palestinian territories. Doves insist that the only way to restore Israel's security is to seek a peace agreement that largely extricates it from the West Bank and Gaza. But Sharon finds himself in the bloody limbo between full-scale war and renewed negotiations, watching his domestic political support plummet as he orders up new military actions that have consistently failed to restore calm.

Ironically, Sharon's political decline has coincided with a political renaissance for the Palestinian leader he declared "irrelevant" and placed under virtual house arrest last December. By turning him into an embattled symbol of Palestinian national aspirations with Israeli tanks outside his front door and missiles being fired into his yard, Sharon appears to have done Arafat a huge political favor. Pollsters are finding Arafat more popular than he has been in months, and the fact that most of the current wave of Palestinian armed attacks are being carried out by militants of his own Fatah movement have, if anything, enhanced Arafat's prestige.

As disastrous as the current uptick of violence is proving for Sharon, it's actually working to Arafat's advantage, for a number of reasons:

  • It highlights both to Israelis and the international community the fact that Sharon's tactics have failed to calm the situation;
  • It creates a unity of purpose between his own Fatah organization and the more radical Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, putting on the backburner differences that have recently sparked intra-Palestinian violence;
  • It reinforces (Palestinian-backed) calls for international peacekeepers, as the rising toll of child casualties on both sides raises the danger of a descent into uncontrolled savagery; and
  • It stokes a brushfire that will ultimately force the U.S. to renew its mediating role, not least because of the Bush administration's own need for Arab support in any campaign against Iraq.

    The Iraq factor may actually intensify diplomatic pressure on Sharon to take steps he'd consider counterintuitive. Already, Washington has expressed interest in a Saudi proposal to offer normalization of Arab relations with Israel if it retreats to its 1967 borders — a prospect bluntly rejected by Sharon on Sunday as a threat to Israel's security. The Bush administration reportedly wants the Saudis to press for adoption of the proposal at the Arab League summit in Beirut later this month. But having been drawn into the game, the Saudis have an agenda of their own. They indicated Monday that they would not raise the proposal in Beirut unless Arafat was present — a direct challenge to Washington to press Sharon to end the Palestinian leader's confinement to Ramallah. More diplomatic discomfort for the Israeli leader emerged Monday, when Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak called for a Sharon-Arafat summit meeting in Egypt. Sitting down with Arafat would require a 180-degree turnabout by Sharon right now. But Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed interest in the idea. Of course, that's not the same as President Bush endorsing it, but the Israelis will be watching his reaction with interest when he meets with Mubarak Tuesday.

    A decade ago, the diplomatic fallout of Gulf War I saw Israel being dragged reluctantly into negotiations with Palestinian representatives that laid the foundation for the Oslo Accords. Sharon can be counted on to do everything in his power to avoid history repeating itself.