Israelis still waiting for Sharon's plan

Yesterday, Israeli forces seized five members of Arafat's presidential guard.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon campaigned for office promising to guarantee the security of Israel and bring it a lasting peace.

Nearly a month into Mr. Sharon's premiership, many Israelis say they are still frustrated with the government's efforts to protect them. And the new Israeli leader's rhetoric - such as repeatedly labeling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a "terrorist" - causes some analysts to wonder just how Sharon plans to negotiate peace.

Even US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who helped welcome Sharon to Washington two weeks ago, has been subtly undermining the new prime minister's insistence that Israeli-Palestinian violence stop completely before peace talks can resume. Mr. Powell and his top spokesman have been indicating that a significant reduction in hostility would lay the groundwork for a return to the table.

Sharon is embarking on a difficult job amid circumstances that don't allow for much of a honeymoon. It may be too soon to subject his leadership to harsh scrutiny. But even so, it appears to some Israelis that a man who seemed to have a grand design for addressing his nation's problems is in fact flying without a map.

"It seems the prime minister has no plan," wrote Eitan Haber, an ally of slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in yesterday's Jerusalem Post.

Not only left-wing pundits are disaffected. Last week, after Palestinian attackers killed a 10-month-old baby and two teenagers, Sharon ordered helicopter strikes against targets associated with Mr. Arafat's presidential guard, killing one member of the force and two other Palestinians. The reprisals struck many Israelis as just the sort of response Ehud Barak, whom Sharon defeated at the polls, might have approved.

"This is a government that is not creating new ideas," says Benny Kashriel, mayor of the most populous Israeli settlement in the Palestinian West Bank. "It is only responding when Israeli people have been killed."

Mr. Kashriel heads an organization of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Seen by Palestinians as squatters and usurpers, the settlers live in dangerous territory and routinely demand that the Israeli military do more to protect them.

In light of recent attacks, adds Kashriel, Israeli forces should enter Palestinian-controlled areas more frequently in order to forestall attacks against Israelis. The Israel Defense Forces yesterday seized five members of Force 17, Arafat's presidential guard, in nighttime raids around the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah.

"All I can say is wait and see," says Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin. "There are no quick fixes, no magic solutions. But there is a long-range plan." This strategy involves restricting the ability of would-be Palestinian attackers to enter Israel and "taking the gloves" off in dealing with Palestinians whom Israel believes are responsible for violence, Mr. Gissin says.

One difference between Sharon and his predecessor is the new prime minister's unwillingness to enter negotiations with the Palestinians while violence continues between the two sides. Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, says Mr. Barak would have jumped at an Egyptian-Jordanian proposal, now being put to the Israelis, that would combine negotiations with efforts to stop the fighting.

But Sharon has reportedly rejected the idea. As Mr. Gissin puts it, "Barak took violence as a given, not as an obstacle to peace."

Although Sharon and his aides have insisted that the US fully supports their refusal to negotiate "under fire," the Israelis may be overstating the case.

During Sharon's trip to Washington, says Robert Pelletreau, a retired US diplomat, Sharon's approach did not meet with unqualified acceptance from US officials. "The idea of no negotiations at all until violence is stopped was unrealistic to them," he says.

Sharon's assertions that Arafat is responsible for violence and instability in the Middle East may be part of a strategy to heighten international pressure on the Palestinian leader. Mr. Pelletreau says Sharon's characterizations of Arafat fell "on some pretty fertile ground" in Washington.

But the tactic of vilifying one's potential negotiating partner raises questions about Sharon's ideas for peace. "There are those who say forget this guy, we won't get anything from him anymore," says Professor Sandler, referring to Arafat. Many analysts - not only Israelis - suspect that Arafat, after decades of struggle, is unable to reach a final peace deal.

"But on the other hand," Sandler wonders, "who can?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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