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In the Middle East, where the door between hope and hell can hinge on one decision, Ariel Sharon appears dead set on one of his - a declaration of war against Hamas.

It may have been the most dangerous gamble of his premiership, and certainly the least immediately comprehensible: A bid to literally bury the Hamas hierarchy, days after President George W. Bush staked the prestige of the United States - and, to a degree, his hopes for re-election next year - to a newly minted peace plan that appeared dangerously vulnerable to shockwaves of violence.

In fact, almost immediately, close U.S.-Israel ties seemed on the verge of becoming a collateral casualty of the assassination drive.

Now, however, one week into the campaign, Bush has given indications of having signed on to Sharon's war.

Seven days ago, Israeli hawks responding to Bush administration criticism were asking out loud: Can a president who has unabashedly conducted vast campaigns explicitly targeting Middle East militants, really tell his close ally and conservative soulmate Ariel Sharon to call a halt to a "This Time It's Personal" offensive of his own?

A week later, the question being asked has changed: Has Bush come to believe that an unapologetically deadly Israeli drive to crush Hamas could ultimately pave the way to his road map for peace? Has the world?

On the face of it, Sharon's timing in launching the operation could hardly have been worse. His order to kill a founding leader of Hamas and a host of his comrades came barely a week after Bush's hope-against-hope Aqaba summit.

Senior Palestinian officials had been demanding an end to Israeli assassinations of militant commanders as a confidence-building measure. Hamas had set such a measure as a condition for a moratorium on terror attacks against Israelis. The White House sought a halt to the "liquidations" in order to shore up the new government of Mahmoud Abbas and to avoid having his right-hand security chief Mohammed Dahlan portrayed as a collaborator with Israel.

It was Sharon's shot to take, however, and, without even a word to his cabinet, he took it. The first of the IDF strikes shocked millions - among them George Bush - by targeting Abdel Aziz Rantisi, by far the most prominent militant yet ordered onto the long hitlist generated by Sharon's avowed liquidation policy.

In what took on the colors of an Apocalypse Now fever dream, Washington watched with evident trepidation as U.S.-made IAF Apache gunships rained fire in an unprecedented seven Israeli assassination missions in five days.

The curious timing of the assassination campaign was not lost on Israelis. Even customarily hawkish tabloids screamed "Why Now?" in banner headlines. A showcase opinion poll indicated that two of every three Israelis supported breaking off the wave of assassinations in order to allow U.S.-backed peace efforts to go forward.

As the "targeted preventions" continued last week, spawned and punctuated by staggeringly deadly Hamas terror attacks, Israeli officialdom glanced nervously at Washington, dreading the fury of a president who had closed the summit with a pledge to "ride herd" over the relentlessly unpredictable parties to the conflict.

The initial response was not long in coming, and seemed to bear out Israeli fears of U.S. fury.

"We are deeply troubled by what happened in Gaza earlier today and we are concerned that this kind of activity will delay the kind of progress we are hoping for as we move down the road map," said Secretary of State Colin Powell, last Tuesday, adding that the message had been relayed to Jerusalem.

At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush was "concerned that the strike will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks, and does not contribute to the security of Israel."

Within hours, however, the World War II-bomber sound of high-flying Apaches was heard in Gaza again. A new wave of airstrikes followed, prompting National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to tell a Los Angeles public policy group: "We've asked the Israelis to recognize that there are consequences to the way that they too fight terror."

Israeli commentators said that, by and large, Bush's response had been muted relative to past administrations' admonishments of IDF actions.

However, American supporters of Israel saw no such restraint in Washington's words. Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York declared that instead of taking Israel to task, Bush should be "concerned about eliminating terrorism" rather than voicing reservations over Israeli actions.

"I didn't see much criticism when innocent civilians became unfortunate casualties of our rather strenuous reaction to threats from Iraq, threats that never materialized," Ackerman said.

A brace of mainly Orthodox U.S. Jewish organizations publicly broke with Bush for the first time in his presidency over the public rebuke of Israel.

Of particular note was the mainstream Anti-Defamation League, which turned sharply from its customary moderate stance to state that it was "troubled" by Bush's criticism of Israel's actions. Israel, like the United States, has the right to defend itself from terrorism," the ADL said in an open letter to the president, quoted in the Forward weekly. "Israel cannot stand idly by while its citizens are slaughtered."

By the weekend, vacationing at his parents' Maine summer home, Bush had taken a decidedly different tack.

Emerging from Maine church services in which he sang the hymn "This is a Day of New Beginnings," the president said he was still confident of achieving peace, but that, "People who want peace to go forward" must join forces to prevent people like Hamas from "sabotaging peace."

Lest his meaning be lost in the Kennebunkport wind, Bush underscored his distaste for Hamas and its leadership.

"The free world, those who love freedom and peace, must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers. And that's just the way it is in the Middle East."

A shaken but unbending Hamas, its leaders keeping one ear to the sky and another to the Palestinian street, vowed that a horrific bus bombing in the heart of Jerusalem was but a foretaste of imminent "earthquakes of revenge," to include counter-assassinations - "an eye for an eye, a politician for a politician."

Losing no time in backing Sharon's gamble with Washington, Israeli rightists have played the Iraq card with a certain confidence. Hawks declared, in effect, that people who live in glass White Houses are in no position to throw stones.

"What sort of immunity [from attack] should this man Rantisi enjoy?" asked hardline cabinet minister Effie Eitam minutes after the attack, in which a number of civilians were killed, one of them a young girl.

"Look, when the United States wanted to get rid of one man, it dropped a full ton of explosives on a restaurant in a residential neighborhood in the heart of Baghdad," Eitam said.

Added lawmaker Ehud Yatom of Sharon's Likud, "The Americans taught us this lesson: go after the leaders of terror, as the United States did with great success in Iraq and in Afghanistan."

For many American observers, the Israeli arguments hardly justified the perceived risk to the peace process. Some noted that the assassination program was the latest in a number of past Israeli operations launched just as new hopes for peace dawned. A few strongly suggested that the real goal of Sharon's liquidation orders was to throw a crippling spanner into the works of peacemaking.

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, in a piece entitled "Diplomacy by Assassination," noted that Rantisi was "a media personality who lives a highly public life. Had it chosen to, Israel could have targeted him at any time in the past year, when no peace process was underway. So why did the helicopters strike six days after the Aqaba summit? The most logical explanation is that the violent and entirely predictable consequences were exactly what Israel's prime minister wanted."

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said Bush should be a great deal more worried about the peace process than he had showed by sending State Department official John Wolf as his troubleshooter to the region this week.

"I think that this latest road map process is going down the tubes right now," Feinstein said on CNN's Late Edition. "I don't think an assistant secretary of state can pull it out."

On balance, however, world response to the Israeli war on Hamas has shown a notable lack of the condemnation that was once all but automatic. The UN Security Council has not censured the attacks, and even pan-Muslim anger has been measured.

In fact, to the delight of Israel, EU foreign ministers hosting their Palestinian counterpart this week, issued unusually strident condemnations of Hamas as a primary obstacle to progress on the road map. At the same time, Australian legislators passed a bill late Monday specifically designed to ban the Hezbollah External Security Organization, which Australian intelligence has linked to terrorist activities.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that Bush's change of heart on the issue of the assassinations and Hamas, was no accident, nor a mere fortunate turn of events.

He said the president's comments followed "an enormous" effort by Sharon, Shalom and many other officials to "make clear that we cannot at all stand an equivalency which ties a terror bombing that murders women and children, with an operation of ours which was aimed at hitting those who dispatch, train and fund the murders."

Shalom said that the administration, as well as European and Asian leaders with who he had spoken, now understood that the assassinations were acts of self-defense.

"We all remember President Bush's initial reaction after the 'prevention' attempt on Rantisi. Since then, we're heard entirely different comments.

"Bush's message was a very strong one, and I very much hope that it will lead to an end to terrorism," Shalom said.

But if Hamas agrees in the end to halt attacks on Israelis, it will not be because of what Bush has said, or the Jewish state has done, argues Haaretz Arab Affairs commentator Zvi Bar'el.

At this point, Hamas has a clear interest in agreeing to a moratorium on terror attacks, Bar'el says. "Hamas reads the internal Palestinian political map extremely well, and in the current situation, terror attacks may actually cause them to lose popular support among the Palestinian population."

"American pressure truly plays no role in Hamas reckoning," Bar'el adds. "America has no leverage that would make Hamas panic. What Israel does is also of no consequence, because it has been fighting Hamas since it was founded in the late 1980s. So Hamas can dismiss out of hand what America does, or what Israel does. But it cannot dismiss the Palestinian public.

In this regard, Hamas certainly has good reasons for concern at the moment, with the slow but perceptible development of a peace process, Bar'el says.

"When Palestinians begin to see the possibility of going out to work from the Gaza Strip's main Erez exit to Israel, when people begin to sense an improvement in their plight, they will oppose attacks that can bring this to an end."

As a result, the trigger for the Rantisi "hit" - a joint Hamas-Islamic Jihad-Fatah operation in which gunmen posed as workers leaving Erez, then killed four IDF soldiers in a nearby army position - actually sapped Hamas support.

Palestinians reacted with great anger to the operation, viewing it as an attack on their own opportunity to go out and make a living, Bar'el says. "People were clearly greatly disappointed at being unable to go out to work in Israel. Today the ambition of the Palestinian public is to go to work, to make a living, and therefore, to see the peace process advance.

"To the Palestinian population, it did not matter that the attack was presented as a 'symbol of the unity of the struggle.' While the attack was going on, seven thousand Palestinians were standing waiting to pass the terminal gates into Israel, only to be turned away because of the shooting.

"When there is a period of no hope, no change, the Hamas 'rides high,' accumulating more and more popularity points among Palestinians. But the moment the pipeline to socio-economic welfare is opened, Hamas must immediately find an alternative. It can find a bad alternative in mounting a terror attack, which we cause Israel to clamp down, but in reading the 'map' today, Hamas knows that what people really want, is to go to work, to begin to live their lives again."

In accepting a hudna or temporary cease-fire, Hamas does not need to forgo its ideology of non-recognition of Israel.

"Hamas is now saying to the Palestinian Authority, 'We are giving you a chance to show if you can accomplish something, a chance to reveal Sharon's true face, a chance to show the Americans that the Palestinians are not the obstacle to the road map."

The basis for the Hamas position is in the organization's charter, Bar'el observes. "Hamas's ideology, as expressed in the charter, calls for cooperating with the Palestinian Authority until the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, as part of a common struggle against a common enemy.

However, Bar'el continues, "Since the PA is a secular entity, the moment that the Palestinian state is created, Hamas will no longer be able to cooperate with it."

In the meanwhile, the hudna concept dovetails nicely with Hamas ideology. "Hamas can now earn points with the population by agreeing to the truce, while saying - everyone, the Americans, the Egyptians, they are all coming to us, to the Palestinians to ask us for a hudna. We didn't ask them. Therefore, hudna is not a matter of surrender, but rather an expression of honor."