- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

By the end of January, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is widely expected to be returned to power in the national elections, comfortably beating opposition challenger Amram Mitzna.
For the Palestinians, Mr. Sharon's re-election means no letup of Israel's iron-fist tactics in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For the Israelis, it shows how much public attitudes have been changed by the seemingly endless bloodletting between themselves and the Palestinians.
Back in February, a poll conducted by the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Israel's largest Hebrew daily, indicated that 61 percent of Israelis were dissatisfied with Mr. Sharon's performance. But this month he handily won the nomination of his right-of-center Likud party, vanquishing Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who was calling for an even harsher approach to the deadlock of Palestinian-Israeli relations.
"In the past year, the tectonic plates of Israeli politics have shifted, and Sharon, the longtime bully boy, now looks like a moderate," said a Western observer. If the analysts have it right, Mr. Sharon and his allies will have more government seats in the Knesset after the Jan. 28 elections than any of his predecessors in a long time, and thus more room to implement plans to start the long process of ending the current strife.
But no one knows what those plans are or if Mr. Sharon actually has any.
A well-informed Western source, recently in Israel, said a debate is going on between a few members of Mr. Sharon's war Cabinet and senior generals in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) over the military and political objectives of the IDF's tactics in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
"The generals are saying, 'Fine, we'll impose curfews and occupy towns, but what are we trying to achieve?'" the source said. "Above all, what's the endgame? It's a small group of about 12 people 15 at most but it's probably the most important thing that's happening in Israel at the moment."
The IDF high command is concerned about growing unease among Israeli soldiers endlessly enmeshed in suppressing the Intifada. Many young draftees are questioning the methods used in enforcing curfews and in street fighting against civilian demonstrators. Palestinian sources say around 300 children and teenagers have died in demonstrations, mostly in clashes with the Israeli military using real ammunition.
Military experts in Israel agree that the IDF's policy of targeting top members of guerrilla groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad has virtually destroyed the command structure of these organizations. But many active cells remain, and the Israeli authorities have been disastrously unsuccessful at preventing them from sending suicide bombers into Israel.
Ever since last March, when 66 Israelis perished in one month in four successive suicide bombings, the violence has settled into a vicious cycle: A Palestinian militant blows himself or herself up in a shopping mall or on a crowded bus. In retaliation, IDF tanks and troops storm a refugee camp or a town in force, looking for bomb factories or militant enclaves, and killing dozens of Palestinians in the ensuing firefights.
Mr. Sharon's efforts to crush Palestinian militants on their home ground have won him increasing popular support.
"The security situation is the main factor in Sharon's popularity," said Mina Tsemach, who heads a leading Israeli polling organization. At the same time, these tactics have also helped to deepen the mood of pessimism that no peaceful resolution is possible.
On Dec. 4, Mr. Sharon accepted in principle the latest of a string of U.S. peace initiatives. This one was put together with help from the European Union and labeled a road map to peace. It calls for an Israeli withdrawal from reoccupied Palestinian areas, followed by Palestinian elections in January 2003 and the establishment of a Palestinian state by August 2003 with "provisional borders." After final negotiations comes the final creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Skeptics predict that the U.S. road map will turn out to be another dead end because of the deep enmity of two old men. Mr. Sharon may have stopped short of expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the Palestinian area and of giving Mr. Arafat the gift of martyrdom the Palestinian would probably like, by sparing his life in recent attacks on his Ramallah headquarters.
To break the deadlock, European leaders are proposing a U.S.-led stabilization force with other international participation for the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians have long called for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. An Israeli source says Israel rejects the idea but is prepared to discuss a monitoring force, with United States' participation. The difference is more than semantics.
A monitoring force such as has kept Greeks and Turks apart in Cyprus for over two decades is put in place to ensure compliance with a peace agreement. A stabilization force separates the belligerents so that peace talks can start, or resume.
At year's end, the issue of peace is obscured by the noise of the Israeli election campaign and the somewhat more distant rumble of a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Mr. Sharon recently said that Washington has given Israel assurances that the United States has the means to prevent a repetition of the 1991 Gulf war, when Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Israel. The Israeli prime minister has also given assurances that Israel will stay out of an eventual anti-Saddam offensive unless attacked first.
One reason for this is that Israeli concerns are focused more on Iran than Iraq. Israeli sources maintain that Iran is active on both of Israel's "fronts." In the north, Iran supports Hezbollah, Israel's Islamist foe in Lebanon, with weapons and equipment. But Iran is also active on Israel's "second front" against Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza.
As the end of 2002 nears, the Israelis face the prospect of fighting on a third front, and this could complicate their relationship with Washington. On Nov. 28, a suicide bomb destroyed an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 16 persons, including three Israeli tourists. At almost the same time, unknown assailants fired two surface-to-air missiles at an Israeli charter jet as it took off from Mombasa airport.
Some days later al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, claimed responsibility for both actions. It was the first al Qaeda attack against Israelis, and the group has since warned that it will not be the last.
Mr. Sharon has vowed that the bombing will not go unpunished, which is not good news for the White House.
Any action against al Qaeda will draw Israel into the war against terrorism President Bush's war. Israel's presence in the anti-terrorism coalition would be likely to alienate Arab governments whose support is vital in the war against Saddam Hussein.

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