Pressure mounts for Sharon to arrive at endgame

Bush called on Sharon yesterday to remove Israeli troops from occupied areas.

For Israeli army officials, the preliminary numbers spell success: 1,100 Palestinians arrested; 50 rocket-propelled grenades, seven explosive devices, and 173 pistols captured as of Wednesday evening, according to an army announcement released yesterday.

Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's name for the incursions into West Bank cities launched after a string of devastating Palestinian suicide bombings, is officially aimed at destroying the Palestinian "terrorist infrastructure."

But beyond the numbers, what does Israel hope the West Bank will look like when it winds up its largest military campaign in a generation? Analysts say that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has left the country in the dark.

Their questions are reinforced by his track-record in Lebanon in 1982, when, as defense minister, he promised a brief, limited antiterrorism campaign and instead took the army all the way to Beirut in a failed bid to smash the PLO and install a pro-Israeli regime there.

Some Israeli analysts believe that one of the major casualties of this operation will be the Palestinian Authority, and they assert that Sharon will expel Yasser Arafat unless he is restrained by the United States and his Labor party coalition partner.

Although President Bush, who spoke yesterday on the Mideast crisis, telegraphed American support for a quick Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, and for using the Palestinian Authority as a channel to restrain terrorists, his words on Arafat contained a vote of no confidence.

"[Arafat] has missed his opportunities and thereby betrayed the hopes of his people," Bush said. "Given his failure, the Israeli government feels it must strike at the terrorist networks that are killing its citizens."

Analysts looking at Israel's future options differ on whether Sharon is trying to pave the way for a more pliable alternative to the Palestinian Authority's current leadership, or whether he simply thinks Arafat must go and has not planned beyond that.

"The government is saying we killed so and so, but there seems to be no plan and no goal," says Reuven Pedhatzur, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "The worst thing a government can do is to go to war without a goal."

Mr. Sharon himself did nothing to solve that puzzle when he told soldiers on Tuesday that their task was to "arrest terrorists and potential suicide bombers" so that Israel could resume discussions on a US ceasefire blueprint and de-escalation steps. "When we finish these stages we will come to a discussion of the political settlement. There are several possibilities. We are not dealing with this now, and we do not have to be dealing with this."

At the same meeting, Mr. Sharon was caught by television microphones as agreeing with his chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, that Arafat must be expelled, a step that faces official opposition – thus far – from the United States and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

It is possible, however, that Israeli opposition would diminish if there are more suicide attacks like the bombing on Passover eve in Netanya that killed 26 people and wounded more than 100.

In Mofaz's lexicon, "terrorist infrastructure" appears synonymous with the Palestinian Authority.

He has repeatedly referred to the PA as being "steeped from head to toe in terror" and yesterday told reporters that both Arafat and the PA "organized and encouraged" terrorism against Israeli targets. "The chances for reaching an agreement are non-existent and as long as Arafat is here, he will continue the terrorism against us. It is better that he be outside."

Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report, believes that the destruction of the PA may be a consequence of Israel's military action, but not out of deliberate intent. He distinguishes between Sharon's antagonism towards Arafat, and his willingness to hold contacts with advisers of Arafat.

"He absolutely thinks there can be an alternative leadership and that once he gets rid of Arafat he is in business," says Susser.

Sharon has twice before sought to shunt Arafat aside and choose an alternative leadership, recalls Pedhatzur.

The first time came when as minister of agriculture and then defense at the beginning of the 1980s he established "village leagues" of hand-picked rural figures to counteract the influence of the pro-PLO mayors in the West Bank. The rural figures were viewed as stooges and failed to attract a following.

The second time came in 1982 when Sharon sought to destroy the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon and expel Arafat. This attempt also was aimed at ensuring Israeli domination of the West Bank, and Pedhatzur believes Sharon is again trying to do the same thing now.

"There is a pattern here, but it won't work," Pedhatzur says.

"You cannot establish the leadership of another people."

Chemi Shalev, the political correspondent for Ma'ariv newspaper, says that "Sharon's endgame is foremost to use military force to solve the problem of terror" and that he is not so concerned about what comes next.

Shalev recalled remarks by Sharon a few months ago that even Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, coming to the fore would not be a worse situation than having Arafat as the Palestinian leader.

"I cannot discern any grand strategy here," Shalev says. "He sees an enemy in front of his eyes and is fighting that enemy."

• Material from wire services was used in this report.

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