Israel's Sharon announces 'harder' steps

Polls show public support is slipping, but Ariel Sharon says he won't alter course.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approval numbers are fading, military reservists and retired officials are criticizing his policies, and the conviction is gaining ground that Mr. Sharon is much better at perpetuating the conflict with the Palestinians than at ending it.

But the white-haired veteran of all of Israel's wars is unbowed. Rotund in both voice and physique, he is barreling ahead, insisting that his way will work.

In a speech Wednesday night to a hotel ballroom full of American Jewish leaders, he made no reference to his increasingly noisy domestic critics. He repeatedly called the worsening conflict with the Palestinians "war," and said Israel was "making every effort not to escalate the situation." Then he added: "But we have to take, let's say, harder steps." He was expected to convey the same message in a speech last night to the Israeli people.

Despite the strains of the 17-month-old conflict, analysts say that Sharon is secure in his position and that his strategy of attrition is unlikely to change. "To a certain extent, [the dissent] erodes his popularity," says Bar-Ilan University political scientist Efraim Inbar, "but still a majority of Israelis are seeing him as doing a good job under the circumstances."

When Sharon came into office a year ago, after four months of open conflict that had killed roughly 65 people on the Israeli side and 350 on the Palestinian side, he promised to restore peace and security to Israel. Since then another 740 people have died as a result of the conflict.

Sharon's unmet objective is the main source of public disaffection. Surveys conducted late last year indicated three-quarters of Israelis supported him; in a poll published by the Ma'ariv newspaper a week ago, 49 percent of respondents said they approved of the prime minister's overall performance.

"There is no policy, and the military strikes are obviously not working," says David Kimche, a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry and a leader of a group of about 1,000 retired military and intelligence officers who have begun to campaign for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories.

Sharon is against such a withdrawal, on the grounds that it would be a show of weakness that would lay the way open for future attacks, and says he aims to achieve a cease-fire and then begin negotiations with the Palestinians. On the other hand, even Israelis concede that Sharon seems alone in the convictions that a cease-fire will succeed on his terms and that he and the Palestinians can find enough common ground even to begin to talk peace.

Sharon's troubles aren't limited to sagging polls and retired officials. More than 270 reservists have announced that they will refuse on moral grounds to serve in the Palestinian territories, a stand that has caused considerable debate in a society proud of its military.

Israel's Peace Now movement, moribund for nearly the entire conflict, is organizing increasingly large demonstrations against Sharon's handling of the conflict. While Peace Now's crowds of several thousand people are a long way short of critical mass, popular movements have been known to change policy in Israel.

At the same time, rightist Israelis accuse Sharon of being too weak in the face of Palestinian attacks and demand that he use greater force. One reserve officer told a radio call-in show this week: "We have to move from a defensive position to an offensive one; we have to reconquer the territories."

It does not help the prime minister that the Israeli economy is shrinking and that unemployment is rising.

Still, Sharon has reason not to despair. For one thing, no other Israeli political figure commands the level of support he can muster, declines notwithstanding. He does not have to face an election until the end of 2003, and the critics in his own Likud party will likely not attempt to replace him until elections are imminent.

His "unity government" - which includes the opposition Labor party - serves as a way of undermining his political enemies and winning international support.

"One of the best moves Sharon made, and preserves, is his relationship with [Labor stalwart Shimon] Peres," says Hebrew University political scientist Avraham Diskin.

Mr. Peres, who is Sharon's foreign minister, constantly pushes for peace talks even as his boss resorts to ever more severe military tactics.

And while the statements of the reservists and retired officials have caught Israelis' attention, their activities could end up benefiting Sharon. To the extent their dissent is seen to aid the Palestinians, mainstream Israelis may defensively coalesce around the prime minister.

Mr. Diskin says the Council for Peace and Security, as the retired officials are known, "is a minor group, but in my opinion this is the main threat to the very existence of the state of Israel. We are right now in a very bitter war of attrition, and for [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat, [the Council's position] is a victory. It encourages him to continue and to say, 'Well, here is the first crack.'"

Echoing similar themes about the risks to Israel's future, Sharon holds firm. "We have to win, and we will win because without that we will not be able to achieve peace here," Sharon told the American Jewish leaders.

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