- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

TEL AVIV Israel's election campaign places demands on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for tough measures against Palestinian militants including calls to expel Yasser Arafat at a time when Washington wants quiet in the region as it prepares to attack Iraq.
Mr. Sharon faces a Nov. 28 primary election challenge from Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguably the only high-profile Israeli politician who can call Mr. Sharon a wimp.
Mr. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, pledges that if he regains the nation's top office he will send Mr. Arafat into exile.
With Mr. Sharon bound by a promise to the United States to let the Palestinian leader remain in the territories, Israeli outrage over the deaths of nine Israeli soldiers and three settlers in a Friday night ambush has given new ammunition to Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Sharon calls the attack a battle. Mr. Netanyahu calls it a massacre.
"We don't need a war of attrition," Mr. Netanyahu said. "We need a war of decisive outcome."
Mr. Sharon's decision to reoccupy Hebron after Friday's attack appeared to insulate the prime minister from Mr. Netanyahu's attacks, protecting a double-digit lead in opinion polls among Likud members.
Yesterday, his government went further by announcing plans to build corridors for settlers that would snake through the city where 450 ultranationalist, well-armed settlers live in guarded enclaves among 130,000 Palestinians.
Even though the plan could entail razing Palestinian homes and heighten tensions as the United States readies for war against Iraq, Mr. Sharon appears determined to let his actions speak louder than his words.
A decision to send tanks and troop carriers into Nablus in response to the infiltration of an Israeli kibbutz last week, in which Palestinian gunmen killed two children and three adults, bolstered Mr. Sharon's standing as a hard-liner.
Mr. Sharon told a recent Likud party meeting he would resist seeking a "magical solution," an apparent reference to Mr. Netanyahu's call for Mr. Arafat to be sent abroad. Mr. Sharon instead pledged to act with "prudence."
Mr. Sharon isn't the first Israeli leader to find the military an electioneering asset.
Six years ago, Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party initiated Operation Grapes of Wrath, an offensive in southern Lebanon against Hezbollah guerillas.
At the time, the move was regarded as an effort to shed his dovish image among Israeli voters.
After Labor quit Mr. Sharon's national-unity government this month, setting up the Likud primary in advance of January general elections, few if any voices were left in the government to urge restraint.
Still, Mr. Sharon is unlikely to push too far, for fear of drawing criticism from the United States. He has put Israel's relationship with Washington at the top of his political agenda in his 20 months as prime minister.
Some 10 years ago, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lost a re-election bid after a spat with President Bush over funding for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The well-known diplomatic restrictions resulting from the anticipated American offensive against Iraq clash head-on with the immediate interests of primaries-crazed politicians, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is stuck in the middle," wrote Chemi Shalev, a political commentator for the daily Ma'ariv newspaper.
"Sharon cannot turn the table right now, when Washington is already preparing the war room for an assault on Baghdad," Mr. Shalev wrote.
If Mr. Sharon retains the Likud leadership, he will have to worry about wooing so-called centrist voters in the general election campaign. But he won't need to soften Israel's response to Palestinian attacks in order to do so, analysts said.
The majority of Israel's public has supported Mr. Sharon's retaliation policy during his government's 20-month tenure. The backing is reflected in public opinion polls, which forecast that Likud is likely to become the largest party in the next parliament.
"Israel public opinion is very set on reacting strongly," said Hanoch Smith, an Israeli pollster. "The heart of the issue is security, and the public is behind it. There isn't any real incentive for the government not to act vigorously."


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