Toughest test yet for Sharon

Three bombings and a baby's murder this week may force Israel's military card.

Following recent attacks on Israeli civilians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is facing his toughest test yet. The sniper shooting of a 10-month-old baby and three bombings in 24 hours have put him in a situation in which he has to react militarily to ease public anger, satisfy his hawkish constituency, and head off a burgeoning wave of vigilantism by Israeli settlers in Palestinian lands.

Israeli analysts and officials say Mr. Sharon's response is only a matter of time. Israel can't "passively accept the murder of babies and bombings in Jerusalem," Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Channel 2 Tuesday night. "Israel's reaction will come, and it will be hard."

Considering his reputation for militancy, Sharon has been somewhat restrained since taking office last month. But in the eye-for-an-eye world of Middle East conflict, it seems inconceivable that Sharon will not hit back.

His own history as an Israeli soldier willing to use extreme force - including attacks on civilians and the invasion of an entire country - to protect Israel's interests suggests that he will not let violent incidents pass without retaliation.

Anticipation of a response has been building ever since 10-month-old Shelhavet Pass was killed Monday night in the embattled West Bank city of Hebron, where several hundred militant Israeli settlers live among tens of thousands of Palestinians.

These Israelis have all but bayed for Sharon to act. The military has had to restrain them from mounting their own attacks against Palestinians, especially in Hebron.

Then yesterday, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up near a group of Jewish Yeshiva students,who were standing at their school bus stop. Two of the Israeli teenagers were killed. Two other bombs were defused in different cities in central Israel. That followed two separate bombing attacks in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Holding back

The prime minister may have held off so far in order to not anger Arab leaders attending a summit meeting in Jordan this week. He may also wait until after Friday, when Palestinians with Israeli citizenship will hold demonstrations to mark the 1976 killing of six people protesting the confiscation of land from Arab communities in northern Israel.

Or he may be taking time to devise an unexpected response, something different from the missile attacks, helicopter raids, and artillery fire that typified former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's reprisals.

Daniel Ben Simon, an Israeli journalist with the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, says it is not impossible that Sharon will act to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, the de facto government that exists because of the peace process the two sides initiated nearly a decade ago in Oslo, Norway.

"We are very close to the showdown between Israel and the PA," says Mr. Ben Simon. "It's the talk of the town, in parliament and so on: What will be the reaction and when?... There's a kind of sense that it doesn't work - Israel has been responding with force for the last six months."

Among the scenarios being discussed, he adds, would be a mass expulsion of Palestinian leaders from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or as Ben Simon puts it, "the final burial of the Oslo Accord."

For weeks, Sharon has been telling anyone who would listen that PA President Yasser Arafat should be held personally responsible for violence against Israelis and that Mr. Arafat is the major source of instability in the Middle East. As it happens, most Arabs see Sharon in the same way that he sees Arafat.

"The problem we face is not an occasional madman," says Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador and a Sharon adviser. "The problem is that organizations directly under the command and control of Yasser Arafat are engaging in violent acts, including Force 17 ... his presidential guard."

Most of the attacks on Israeli civilians have been claimed by militant Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that are not led by Arafat. Some members of Palestinian security forces have been involved in violence against Israelis, but it is by no means clear that Arafat is directing these attacks.

Unlike his predecessors, Sharon may have entirely given up on Arafat as a "peace partner" - a factor that could broaden Sharon's range of options in responding to bombs and other attacks against Israeli civilians.

The US is pulling back from its engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which could also free Sharon from the worry that the US will object to a harsh attack on the Palestinians.

Sharon and the US

And for the time being, Sharon has gotten what he needs from the US. During a recent visit to Washington he received sympathetic hearings from President Bush and other officials. Late Tuesday night, the US vetoed a measure to introduce a UN observer force that would protect Palestinian civilians, fulfilling an Israeli wish to stop such an effort.

But some considerations continue to demand Israeli restraint, says Mark Heller, a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "As long as no one in government comes to the conclusion that we would be better off with chaos than with Arafat, they've been restrained," he says. "When that perception changes, there will no longer be restraint. For a long time there have been voices saying send [Arafat] back to Tunis, but those voices haven't won out yet."

A second dimension is the worry about the reaction of Israel's neighbors and the ever present concern that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could widen. As it is, Israel and Lebanese guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran remain in a low-intensity conflict on Israel's northern border.

There is also the certainty of international condemnation following a stern response. "A lot of people who demonized Sharon didn't think he'd be affected by these factors, but it's pretty clear they [do]," Heller adds. "I can't tell you where the breaking point is and where these considerations will be overridden."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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