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Criticized by left and right, Sharon still thrives

Nablus occupation Wednesday shows Israeli leader's hard-line priorities.

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2002


The pattern is characteristic of Ariel Sharon's tenure as prime minister: Palestinian terrorists do something heinous and the Israeli military sends tanks and helicopters into Palestinian areas.

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Wednesday, Israeli forces returned in force to the northern West Bank city of Nablus, citing as a provocation a Palestinian attack last Sunday against Israeli civilians. The cycle echoes a Palestinian suicide bombing last March, which led the way to an Israeli operation christened "Defensive Shield" - a massive military reoccupation of nearly all the Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.

Now, as before, Israel's goal is to dismantle what it calls the "infrastructure of terror." But recent history has shown that the fighting, mass arrests, and curfews involved in such operations provoke more Palestinian militancy.

That is why many Israelis, especially from the leftist "peace" camp, say Mr. Sharon has failed as prime minister. They say peace with the Palestinians seems ever more distant, day-to-day security remains grim, and the economy is shrinking ominously.

Even some right-wing Israelis, who generally applauded Sharon's election as prime minister 20 months ago, say he has failed to use the force necessary to crush what they see as the Palestinian enemy.

But for a man so widely accused of failure, Mr. Sharon is doing just fine, both in terms of his short-term political future and his long-term vision for the Jewish state.

Last week, Sharon dissolved Israel's parliament, necessitating elections next January, but he stands a good chance of becoming prime minister again. Polls put him slightly ahead of a challenger seeking to unseat Sharon as leader of his Likud bloc, which is widely expected to emerge from the elections as Israel's leading party.

That challenger - newly appointed Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - is fighting hard, telling interviewers that, should he become Likud leader and prime minister, his government will be one of "solutions."

Politically, Sharon has reinvented himself during his tenure. "He managed to keep Israeli politics and the Israeli public together," says Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan. "He's become a sheep in wolf's clothing - in other words, he's moved much more to the center."

Mr. Hazan also says that Sharon "has done absolutely nothing - [there has been] no progress on the peace process, no progress on the economy, no progress on religious-secular tensions" within Israeli society.

Such assessments may miss what is most important to Sharon. In office, he has helped eviscerate prospects for Palestinian statehood and oversee the extension of Jewish control over parts of the West Bank.

These two achievements are in accord with Sharon's strategic vision for Israel. "[W]e must say very clearly that concern for our own survival does not permit the establishment of a ... Palestinian state on the West Bank," he and coauthor David Chanoff write in "Warrior," an autobiography of Sharon re-issued last year.

Sharon has spoken in favor of a Palestinian state in the past year. But "All the talk about statehood is aimed at American ears," says a senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He doesn't believe in it all."