Sharon's way now riding high

For first time in his career, he has Arafat in a corner and broad international backing.

At the height of a long and controversial career as a soldier and statesman, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is enjoying his finest hour.

His longtime nemesis, Yasser Arafat, is scrambling to meet Israeli demands that he suppress Palestinian militants. Violence against Israelis has dropped dramatically this week.

While there is deep skepticism about Mr. Sharon's capacity to convert his current successes into the crystalizing achievement of peace with the Palestinians, as he says he wants to do, there is no doubt that he has a moment or two to savor.

The last time he wedged Mr. Arafat into such narrow straits - during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which Sharon orchestrated as defense minister - tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to oppose him. The noted Israeli writer Abba Eban called the invasion "a dark age in the moral history of the Jewish people."

Now, Sharon heads a broad-based coalition government. There are no mass demonstrations to protest his hard-edged handling of the Palestinian uprising. His main political competitor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, can do little more than heckle from Op-Ed pages.

"Sharon is winning," says Palestinian political scientist Manuel Hassassian. Arafat's speech on Sunday - in which he demanded his people cease "armed activities" against Israelis - is a sign of "Sharon's victory over the Palestinians," adds Palestinian legislator Abdul Jawad Saleh.

Since assuming power in March, Sharon has insisted that Israel would not negotiate with the Palestinians under fire, demanding absolute quiet as a precondition for implementing a cease-fire or resuming discussions about a peace deal.

In the meantime, he has fought the Palestinians by assassinating suspected militants, using fighter jets and attack helicopters to destroy sites associated with Arafat's Palestinian Authority, and maintaining a policy of "closure" on the Palestinian territories that UN officials say has created the worst socio-economic crisis for the Palestinians since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Once criticized - at home and abroad - as an invitation to anyone with a gun to delay peacemaking, Sharon's demand for quiet is now broadly endorsed by the US and the Europeans. Palestinian arguments that a cease-fire is untenable without tangible political gains have been dismissed.

Although Sharon has long styled himself as an enemy of terrorists, in some ways he has them to thank for his ascendancy.

A year ago, as he campaigned for the premiership, Sharon sought to portray himself as a grandfatherly warrior who could do what was necessary to protect Israelis from the Palestinians. No one doubted his resolve.

In the early days of his military career, he headed a unit formed to carry out reprisal raids following Arab attacks on Israelis. In August 1953, Unit 101 killed 20 Palestinians in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. In October of that year, Unit 101 killed 69 people in the Palestinian village of Kibya. In both cases, the majority of the dead were women and children.

Following the invasion of Lebanon, a government panel determined that Sharon bore "indirect responsibility" for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied with Israel.

Many Israelis wondered whether Sharon - as prime minister - would employ these sorts of tactics in dealing with the Palestinians. He has not.

"He's much more moderate than in the past," says Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Age did something good to him."

To be sure, the Israeli military has been more aggressive under Sharon than under his predecessor, Ehud Barak. Palestinians killed in the conflict outnumber Israelis by more than 3 to 1, and many Palestinian civilians have died during Israeli attacks.

But Palestinian terrorist acts - such as suicide-bomb attacks in a crowded pizzeria and on a pedestrian mall - have always made the Israelis seem relatively less barbaric. In the high-tension aftermath of one such attack, Sharon held fire. In other cases, most of the Israeli retaliation was directed against buildings and institutions and not against people.

Events in the US have also benefited the Israeli leader. President Bush has yet to meet Arafat and has seemed much less inclined than some of his predecessors to engage in even the pretense of even-handedness in dealing with the two parties.

Ever since Sept. 11, Sharon has sought to style the Israeli struggle against Arafat as a smaller version of the American battle against Osama bin Laden. While this approach took a few months to take hold, it now seems that the US officials view Palestinian attacks against Israel as harshly as they do the violence perpetrated against the US.

Sharon "seems to have got the [US] administration to come around to the approach he wanted to take from the beginning," says Mark Heller, a strategic analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

US support has been crucial in forcing Arafat to crack down, as he is now doing in earnest. Yesterday, Palestinian police under Arafat's authority exchanged gunfire with supporters of the Islamic Resistance Movement as the police sought to arrest one of the group's leaders. Better known as Hamas, the organization has been responsible for a series of terrorist attacks on Israelis.

The clash is an indication that Arafat is willing to risk wrecking Palestinian unity in order to meet US and European demands that he stifle Palestinian militancy.

At home, Sharon has capitalized on the national letdown that followed the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the renewal of open conflict. "The pessimistic right-wing view that some people had in the past is now perceived by most people as a very realistic view," says Professor Diskin. In opinion polls, roughly three-quarters of Israelis says they approve of the job the prime minister is doing.

The only problem is answering skeptics who say that Sharon has no strategy beyond beating down the Palestinians.

"Israel still must provide some answer and outlet for the nationalist aspiration of the Palestinian people," wrote columnist Uzi Benziman in the Israeli daily Haaretz this week. "Sharon has not come across as a leader who has devised a plan that is sufficiently dynamic to alter the destructive character of Israeli-Palestinian relations."

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