Despite past, Sharon appeal soars

Nevertheless, a survivor of a 1982 massacre opened proceedings in Belgium to indict Sharon as a war criminal.

Ariel Sharon may never live down his blood-stained reputation abroad, but most Israelis increasingly view their prime minister as a responsible, restrained leader and the best man to lead the country in its confrontation with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon's popularity has been increasing steadily since he took office on March 7. With an approval rating of 58 percent, according to a recent poll, Sharon has already reached a level of public appeal comparable to Israel's most favored prime ministers at the height of their popularity.

The widespread perception that Sharon has shown "restraint" in combating the Palestinians could give him the political capital to use overwhelming military force if the current cease-fire - already strained - collapses. Conversely, it also shows that if Sharon were ever to break with his uncompromising stand against making substantial concessions to the Palestinians, he could probably bring along much of the public.

His growing popularity is all the more notable now, at a time when a long shadow from Sharon's past is reaching into his present.

This week, a survivor of the 1982 massacre of at least 700 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon, opened proceedings in Brussels aimed at indicting Mr. Sharon as a war criminal.

Meanwhile, a BBC documentary this week featured prominent experts in international law saying that Sharon could be prosecuted for war crimes because he was legally responsible for the well-being of civilians in Israeli-occupied Lebanon.

Sharon's Israeli lawyer, Dov Weissglas, says there is no basis for any indictment.

Most Israelis rallying around their national 'protector'

It is unclear how this development might affect Sharon beyond influencing international opinion, but one thing is for sure: The past three weeks of uncharacteristic restraint with the Palestinians are earning him growing support even outside his constituency.

"I've been pleasantly surprised. He was considered very right-wing and I was concerned he would start a war," says Alona Golan, an Israeli TV producer who voted against Sharon in February and had been quite wary of his past.

"He always seemed so aggressive. But during this period he has remained calm and shown restraint," Ms. Golan says. "He comes across like a pleasant grandfather."

Even politicians considered avowed doves speak of a new respect for the former military general and Likud party leader, and for what the Israeli media terms his "policy of restraint" in not retaliating specifically for recent Palestinian attacks.

"My impression is so far, so good," says Yael Dayan, a legislator from the Labor party, which is grouped with Likud in a national unity government. She says many Israelis believe the country did "more than its duty" with Sabra and Shatila by holding a state inquiry after the massacre.

The inquiry recommended that Sharon resign his post as defense minister for failing to foresee the carnage and take steps to avert it.

"It's not out of the system. It still worries some people tremendously," Ms. Dayan says. "But it's not a reason not to have confidence in Sharon now, even if it is a reason to be suspicious about his attitude toward Arabs."

One group that has become increasingly dissatisfied with Sharon is Jewish settlers, some of whom accuse him of being more concerned with courting international opinion than protecting their lives. Palestinian attacks killed three settlers in the West Bank this week.

Israeli media role in Sharon's popular surge

Sharon's actual degree of restraint is in the eye of the beholder.

Fending off pressure from Jewish settlers for large-scale military action, he told Likud legislators Monday that "there are things we are doing and things we will do. One thing I will not accept is going to war. In my opinion, today that is incorrect and inappropriate. It should not be done."

Many Israelis view the current confrontation with Palestinians as a matter of national survival and are rallying around Sharon as a kind of protector.

"Israeli public opinion is under pressure. People feel vulnerable and are looking for a hero, someone to restore security," says Uzi Benziman, a columnist for Haaretz newspaper and author of a biography of Sharon.

"Sharon is portrayed by the media and through his history as the one to do that. He is perceived as a man who found military solutions in the past," Mr. Uziman says.

Other factors in Sharon's public support include a feeling that, by forging a national unity government, he has restored a sense of stability after the controversies and turnarounds that characterized the term of his predecessor, Ehud Barak.

And in political terms, the approach of Mr. Barak and the left wing is seen as having failed with what Israelis consider to be "generous" peace proposals that were met, in their view, by violence from the Palestinians.

Both right and left subscribe to a view that the Palestinians alone are responsible for the current confrontation.

This belief is reinforced by the media - which, according to Rogel Alpher, who reviews the media for Ha'aretz newspaper, has become "more right wing, more patriotic, more nationalistic" during the nine months of the uprising. Newscasts often do not report Palestinian casualties and fatalities, sometimes saying only that "there were no casualties among our forces."

Following the June 1 bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 21 Israelis, the state-run radio temporarily banned its reporters from interviewing Arab members of the Knesset.

"I don't think Sharon has changed or that he changed his image. I think the Israeli people have changed and the atmosphere in Israel has completely changed," says Hashem Mahameed, a Knesset member from the United Arab List. "There is a consensus concerning the Palestinians: There are more and more right-wing ideas, and more racism inside and outside the Knesset."

During April and most of May, Sharon oversaw a dramatic military escalation that included frequent incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory, large-scale home demolitions in the Gaza Strip that were justified as removing cover for snipers, and the use of F-16 warplanes after a suicide attack in the coastal city of Netanya.

A cease-fire in the balance

The word "restraint" was first attached by the Israeli media to Sharon when he declared on May 22 that the army would abandon offensive operations.

The word was linked to him again when he refrained from military action after the June 1 Tel Aviv bombing by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

The bombing was followed by a cease-fire declaration by Mr. Arafat the next day, and last week both sides agreed to a cease-fire blueprint drawn up by George Tenet, the American CIA director. But bloodshed has continued on both sides. Sharon is to meet President George W. Bush for talks in Washington on Tuesday.

Sharon's long-term intentions are hard to discern, says Mr. Benziman. "I don't know whether all this has been pretense or is sincere on Sharon's part. On face value, he wanted to achieve a cease-fire and a cessation of violence that would be a great success. People may think he has a grand plan to prepare public opinion for military action, but that will also depend on the Palestinian side," he says. "They will decide how Sharon will act."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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