- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

"So foul a sky clears not without a storm" wrote Shakespeare in "The Life and Death of King John." He could have been writing the wire copy from the Middle East this week. Increasingly sophisticated and fast-paced Palestinian terrorism is discrediting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies. As a result, Mr. Sharon is being powerfully cross-pressured both from his right and left and, simultaneously, by a suddenly restive and disgruntled Bush administration.

The Jerusalem sky is further darkened by a split within the European Union's Mideast policy and a U.S. strategy that is deeply challenged by its own State Department as well as by most of its European allies.

At the same time, Yasser Arafat appears to be losing his grip on leadership reportedly drawing his pistol and pointing it at the head of his security chief, Col. Jibril Rajoub during a violent argument over whether to disband their terrorist militias (Mr. Arafat refused to disband them). All this chaos which would normally receive the world's closest attention is being played out as mere background noise to heavily rumored American plans for a war with Iraq later this summer.

The tempo and logistical sophistication of Palestinian terrorism picked up on Feb. 6, as Mr. Sharon left for Washington to meet with Mr. Bush. The meeting went badly. According to Israeli sources hostile to Mr. Sharon, Messrs. Bush and Sharon argued acridly over Mr. Sharon's refusal to unfreeze Palestinian Authority money which is intended to relieve the economic hardship of Palestinians. President Bush also rejected Mr. Sharon's desire to groom another Palestinian to replace Mr. Arafat.

Perhaps most significantly, according to Israeli intelligence sources, Mr. Bush instructed Mr. Sharon not to unleash definitive military action against Mr. Arafat and his Palestinian Authority until "the United States launches its offensive against Iraq." According to the same sources, Mr. Sharon agreed to that request.

With Israeli military policy frozen in place by U.S. demands, Palestinian terrorism has been running amok. They have launched (unsuccessfully) two Qassem rockets. They have implemented terrorist operations, sometimes within hours of each other, with a broad array of weapons which suggests a logistics system composed of over 1,000 terrorists and support personnel.

Most alarmingly, for the first time they blew up an Israeli tank, killing three soldiers and did so with a specially formulated C-4 plastic explosive which was developed by al Qaeda bomb experts which supports the rumors that al Qaeda has moved into close alliance with Mr. Arafat and the Palestinians.

Because Mr. Sharon's military responses, limited by his agreement with Mr. Bush, are not proving to be having any deterrent effect on the current flood of terrorism killings, domestic Israeli opposition is surging. Over 1,000 retired officers from the Israeli Army, Mossad (Israel's CIA) and Shin Bet (Israel's FBI) went public yesterday condemning their government's policies and calling for Israeli forces to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and some of the West Bank. The retired Mossad and Shin Bet officers are believed to be expressing the current opinion of their former security agencies. They have provided vital credibility to the recrudescing peace wing of Israeli politics.

According to a weekend poll in the Israeli Ma'arv newspaper, a plurality of opinion 49 percent to 44 percent believes that "the national leadership has lost control of the security situation."

More politically dangerous for Mr. Sharon is that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has criticized him for stopping short of removing Mr. Arafat. Mr. Netanyahu calls for "large-scale military operations," and talks outright about challenging Mr. Sharon for Likud Party leadership. Polls show him ahead of Mr. Sharon 48 percent to 33 percent.

As the conservative Likud Party is expected to win the next election (which must be held by November 2003, but will probably be held sooner), it is increasingly likely that domestic Israeli politics will drive policy in Israel. Mr. Sharon may well decide to break with Mr. Bush over his request for delaying action until we have attacked Iraq.

With Mr. Bush correctly focused on the war on terrorism, his government is divided on Israeli policy. Strong voices in the State Department want the United States to force Israel to the bargaining table with Mr. Arafat now (as do most of our European and Arab "allies"), while the National Security Council is reputed to want to first force a change of regime in Iraq. The White House has embraced the NSC strategy believing that Mr. Sharon will never negotiate in good faith with Mr. Arafat, so why waste diplomatic energy trying to make him?

That debate may prove to be pointless. Currently, Messrs. Sharon and Arafat are our only tools for peace. But with both of them politically weakened, they are probably incapable of negotiating a genuine cease-fire. They are, however, capable indeed likely to be able to stumble into war.

If Mr. Sharon feels forced to go to war with Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and more fully occupy the Palestinian zones, the Middle East will be drastically polarized leaving us virtually alone to base and execute military action against Iraq. While such an endeavor is not beyond our capabilities, it is the least good way of doing it. Regretfully, it is also the most likely.

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