- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, coping with a dramatic surge in Palestinian violence and discontent from both sides of his coalition, is facing the biggest challenge to his leadership since he was elected 13 months ago.
Conservative voters who gave Mr. Sharon the most crushing election victory in Israel's history are protesting outside his office these days, demanding tougher measures against Palestinians.
On the left, a growing number of Labor Party lawmakers are quietly talking about leaving the government and pressing for early elections.
In between, Israelis are lamenting a rising death toll and a glaring inability by Mr. Sharon to deliver either of the things he promised: peace and security. Sixty-one Palestinians and 31 Israelis have died in violence in the past week.
Yesterday, Palestinian militants struck at Israeli civilians with a suicide bombing on a bus, a roadside ambush in the West Bank and a restaurant shooting in Israel's largest city, leaving five Israelis and two Palestinian assailants dead.
In retaliatory raids, Israeli warplanes and helicopters bombed seven separate Palestinian government compounds and security complexes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Sharon, a 73-year-old former general who had wandered in a political wilderness before his election last year, presides over one of the broadest governments in Israel's recent history. His approval rating consistently topped 60 percent during most of his first 12 months.
But while Mr. Sharon is viewed by most of the public as sincere and trustworthy, an increasing number of Israelis think he has no clear plan for dealing with the 17-month-old Palestinian uprising.
"He's not doing well these days," says Moshe Shahal, a former Labor Party official who now runs a law firm in Tel Aviv and comments regularly on politics.
"But I don't think he's going down any time soon. I think he'll at least last out the year," Mr. Shahal said.
According to a poll published yesterday in the Ha'aretz newspaper, only a quarter of the Jewish public believe Mr. Sharon's government is dealing well or very well with issues of security and diplomacy.
More than 70 percent of those polled gave him average or poor marks in the two areas.
Cabinet ministers who once deferred to Mr. Sharon's popularity and his experience are now censuring him publicly.
In a meeting yesterday that went on for hours, some ministers criticized Mr. Sharon for dealing too harshly with the Palestinians. Others, like National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman, lashed out at him for being too soft.
"We need to deliver an ultimatum to the Palestinians: Stop the violence or face the bombing of their commercial centers, their banks and economic centers, everything," he told reporters.
Mr. Sharon convened the Cabinet after three deadly attacks on Israelis, including a late-night shooting in a Tel Aviv restaurant that killed three persons, a suicide bombing on a bus that caused one man's death and a drive-by shooting that killed a 45-year-old woman.
Israel responded with its usual shellings and helicopter assaults, including one missile strike on a car that killed three members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah group.
One of the men was a top aide to Marwan Barghouthi, arguably the most prominent figure of the Palestinian uprising.
One of the Israeli attacks on a Gaza City security compound sent shrapnel into Mr. Arafat's two-story villa next door, damaging its roof, doors and windows.
But it was a Palestinian rocket attack later in the day that augured the most menacing escalation. Three Qassam 2 rockets slammed into the southern Israeli town of Sderot, moderately wounding an 18-month-old girl. Israeli leaders have warned that rocket attacks on urban centers would trigger an unprecedented response.
Though Israel has ratcheted up its response to Palestinian attacks twice in the past week, tanks and ground troops have invaded refugee camps the harsh measures appear only to stoke Palestinian belligerence.
They also threaten to drive a wedge between Mr. Sharon and the Labor Party, the biggest component in his right-center coalition.
Top Labor Party lawmakers, including former Cabinet ministers Haim Ramon and Avraham Shochat, were canvassing their colleagues yesterday for a decision to leave Mr. Sharon's government.
Two key party leaders, Defense Minster Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, are still clinging to what Israelis call their national unity government.
But Mr. Peres, in a closed-door meeting yesterday, told party members that Mr. Sharon's policies were only distancing prospects for a cease-fire and a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
"If I had known that we would have reached this situation, I doubt I would have joined the government," Israeli television quoted Mr. Peres as saying.
Mr. Shahal, the former Labor Party official, said Mr. Peres and the others had few alternatives despite their griping.
"It would be like committing political suicide," he said.


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