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Ariel Sharon rode to power on a vow never to negotiate under fire, but as a horrifying wave of terrorism freed his hand to step up attacks against Palestinian targets, dark assessments of security officials indicated that in the end it would be talk, not ordnance, that would put a stop to the Holy Land's Gotterdammerung.

"The incidents at Hadera, Afula, Machane 80, Jerusalem, Haifa and Emmanuel, which began on November 27, 2001, in which 44 Israelis were killed in a two week period, this painful and grievous chain of terrorist attacks has brought about an apex in the delegitimization of Arafat and alongside this, an apex in the (international) legitimacy accorded Israel's response, something that has today afforded us greater freedom of operation, IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz told a gathering of security authorities Tuesday.

It was clear from Mofaz's remarks that he believed that the sooner that Israel's military pressure forced Arafat from power, the better off Israel - and Arafat's own constituents - would be. "After 15 months of conflict, I believe the cracks developing are on the other side, the Palestinian side," Mofaz said. "The Palestinian population views its leaders as leading them through a dark tunnel, without the slightest spark of light at its end. Even in Arafat's inner circle of leadership, there are other voices calling for a change in direction, for a turn-about."

But if Mofaz sounded a note of weary optimism, a very different assessment emerged from a background briefing for military correspondents, led by a senior security official speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Our 'preventations' (a euphemism for a range of operations often including Israeli assassinations of suspected militant commanders) are not liquidating Hamas, rather we are only hampering its efforts," state-owned Israel Radio quoted the official as saying. "At this point, Hamas has hundreds of well-trained military operatives, a corps that dwarfs Israeli efforts to take out key militants in "pinpoint operations", the official said.

"The preventions are, in effect, an attempt to empty the ocean using a teaspoon."

Moreover, much worse attacks may be on the horizon, he said. "Hamas is leaning toward moving toward larger, 'strategic' terrorist attacks, such as attacking large buildings or assassinating very senior Israeli government officials."

Israeli hit squads and helicopter gunship crews have killed scores of suspected terrorists since the uprising began 15 months ago, earning frequent U.S. and world criticism. Opinion polls have shown that while most Israelis believe that Palestinian suicide bombings and other deadly revenge attacks are the frequent result of the assassinations, a majority of Israel's Jewish citizens still voice support for the policy.

The official called Arafat "a survivalist who spends most of his time on survival." Stressing that there was "no military solution to terrorism," he took a backhand jab at the Sharon cabinet's having formally dismissed the canny Palestinian leader as "irrelevant". The official, terming Arafat the only leader in a position to control the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, then added, significantly:

"Only with Arafat will we be able to reach an agreement. Without him it will be very difficult to achieve one."

Adding his voice to the call for a return to a diplomatic process to accompany military efforts was former Shin Bet secret service chief Ami Ayalon, who told the Herzliya meeting "It is easy for any intelligence man - or even anyone who reads the newspaper today - to prove that a pinpoint assassination of a terrorist in the context of a reality of dialogue and diplomatic hope, will bring many over from the side of attempted terrorism to the side of dialogue.

"On the other hand, that same operation, that same killing, with the same moral and operational parameters, but against a reality bereft of diplomatic hope, will bring over many terrorists to the side of suicide bombers," Ayalon said. "And, instead of seeing just a handful, we will see dozens or hundreds."

In any event, there were signs that Sharon's orders forbidding negotiations under fire were increasingly porous, as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was reported to have met recently with Arafat's lieutenant and senior peace negotiator Abu Ala.

"There are contacts under way at different levels and varying degrees of intensity," a Foreign Ministry source told Reuters Tuesday.. "There is no decision by the government against meeting the Palestinians or talking to them."

Another senior Israeli political source said both Peres and Defense Minister Behjamin Ben-Eliezer had held talks with PA officials since Arafat was ruled "irrelevant". "They aren't talking with Arafat," the political source said. "The prime minister doesn't want Arafat involved but he doesn't mind if they talk to the others."

In an editorial headlined "A glimmer of hope," Ha'aretz wrote that after publicly calling for an end to armed attacks Sunday evening Arafat's test now will be "the degree that he wants to, and can, enforce the orders he gave in public on all the armed groups operating in the territories."

But Israel now finds itself facing a test as well, Ha'eretz notes. It's actions will be weighed "by all those who seek a peace agreement, in Israel and the world: Will it manage to restrain itself and avoid military actions that could create a dizzying new deterioration in the situation?

"Even without international observers, which the U.S. vetoed on Saturday in the UN Security Council, it won't be difficult for the international community to determine whether this time, the words are backed up by deeds. And if they are, it won't take long before the U.S. envoy, Anthony Zinni, is back in the region and the discussions turn again to the Tenet understandings, the Mitchell recommendations, and the chances for a return to the negotiating table."