On the eve of a fresh U.S. mediation mission, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday turned aside pressure by settlers and their rightist allies to order a new, even more intensive West Bank military assault in response to a sudden, deadly daily ration of Palestinian terrorism.
CIA Director George Tenet is due in the region at the weekend, with Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns set to arrive Thursday, in visits conceived before a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and shootings this week claimed the lives of a grandmother, her one-year-old granddaughter, and three teenagers in a little over 24 hours.
The brief of the senior U.S. officials is to work to set the stage for resumption of Israeli Palestinian peace talks. Tenet's task is to work with Palestinian officials to restructure and overhaul the Palestinian Authority's hobbled security services, which have been hit hard both by IDF ordinance and by grass-roots Palestinian opposition to curbing suicide attacks and drive-by shootings.
Burns is to work concurrently on structural changes within the Palestinian Authority, the self-governing body which, at the best of times, was widely condemned by Palestinians for pervasive corruption, cronyism, bureaucratic insensitivity and operative incompetence.
In a move that some observers had viewed as a self-sprung trap, Sharon has set sweeping reforms of the Authority as a pre-condition for renewal of diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians. As of mid-month, Washington discerned signs that such reforms - backed by a range of influential Arab and European leaders long disenchanted with Arafat's leadership - had become a realistic, if still remote, possibility. Draft proposals were put forward for elections, cabinet reorganization, and centralization and streamlining of the security services.
But any semblance of reform is likely to be stillborn if Israel orders a reprise of Operation Defensive Shield, the West Bank offensive that put whole brigades of IDF troops into the field and mobilized tens of thousands of reservists for the largest and most devastating military operation in the West Bank since its capture in the 1967 Six-Day War.
On Wednesday, Sharon convened his senior ministers to discuss Israel's response to a spate of recent bombings in Israeli cities and the renewal of drive-by attacks and shooting rampages against settlers. Although declaring that the government had placed no restrictions on the actions of IDF troops, which continue to carry out manhunts, blockades and other actions in the West Bank, Sharon refrained from ordering large-scale moves. He deferred any major decisions until next week at the earliest.
Meanwhile, the leader of the settler-dominated National Religious Party, Effi Eitam called Wednesday for a further military operation in the Palestinian territories, arguing that this - not the "illusion" of PA reform - was the only way to guarantee Israeli security.
"Operation Defensive Shield, which really lasted for about 10 days, brought about three months of quiet, and we know exactly what must be done: to simply continue with what was cut off and halted under the influence of lies and illusions about reform [of the Palestinian Authority] and the like," said Eitam.
The Bush White House voiced profound understanding for Defensive Shield when it was launched in response to the killings of dozens of mostly-elderly Israelis in a suicide bombing at a Passover seder in late March. But the administration blanched at the extent of damage wrought by the offensive, and U.S. officials helped bring the offensive to a conclusion more than a month sooner than IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said publicly he would have preferred.
During the Wednesday cabinet session, Mofaz suggested that the Sharon government take the intiative in instituting steps as far-reaching as deporting Arafat. Sharon lost no time in upbraiding him, snapping an order that the IDF's senior commander stick to army business and keep politically-tinged comments to himself.
Mofaz also raised hackles by suggesting, along with Shin Bet secret service chief Avi Dichter, that so long as a West Bank border fence exists solely on the drawing boards, the army must again plunge into Palestinian cities for prolonged periods, rather than blockading them or limiting incursions to brief raids.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, backed by Sharon, rejected the concept out of hand. "This will bring the world to rise up against us," Ben-Eliezer said.
In its Wednesday editorial, Ha'aretz cautions that Israel must remain open to the possibility of real change within the Palestinian leadership, and help foster such change, if terror is ever to be decisively overcome.
"The Palestinian leadership, now speaking out against the suicide attacks, is asking Israel to equip it with political ammunition to prove to the Palestinian public that there's no need to choose terror as the way to reach achievements. If, in spite of these voices, Israel continues establishing new settlements and encourages its citizens to move there, instead of presenting a realistic political plan, and if President George Bush continues making emotional statements about Yasser Arafat instead of moving ahead decisively with an American political initiative, the routine of terrorism could continue - and worsen.
"With Arafat's release from the siege on the Muqata compound in Ramallah, and the compromise solution for the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and in light of the heavy pressure on the Palestinians to cease terrorism, there is a momentary opening to hope for a renewed dialogue. But as the days go by, there is a growing fear that Israel is not doing anything to exploit the opportunity."
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