Next Stop, Gaza

When Ariel Sharon led his division in the Yom Kippur War, in the difficult conditions created by the Egyptian surprise attack, he said that the question of who was caught in a trap - the Israeli or the Egyptian forces - was more a matter of psychology and morale than of facts.

When Ariel Sharon led his division in the Yom Kippur War, in the difficult conditions created by the Egyptian surprise attack, he said that the question of who was caught in a trap - the Israeli or the Egyptian forces - was more a matter of psychology and morale than of facts: Whoever feels besieged behaves accordingly, while someone in the exact same situation, who is instead suffused with the fighting spirit and skilled in the art of war, wages the battle as if he has pushed the enemy into a corner and, as a result, determines the outcome.

This has always been Sharon's guiding philosophy. He is a disciple of the school of taking the initiative, believing that the way to overcome an immediate dilemma is to create a dilemma for his adversary. He put this formula to work this week as well: The prime minister returned from Washington convinced that he had pulled off a strategic maneuver with President George Bush that put him in a position to threaten Yasser Arafat with checkmate. Yet he fails to consider that while he puts the noose around the Palestinian leader's neck, he may find himself roped in by the American administration.

On his way to Washington, Sharon was gloating about the achievements of Operation Defensive Shield. He told the reporters who were traveling with him that the operation dealt a heavy blow to the Palestinian Authority and taught the young generation of Palestinians to be wary of the long arm of the Israel Defense Forces. Sharon and his aides hailed the operation as a great success that halted the terrorist attacks, and restored calm and security to Israel's cities and their residents. They boasted that the operation was a slap in the face to all those who said that military force could not exterminate terror. The operation was considered such a big success that it quickly became a "brand name": Finance Minister Silvan Shalom called his economic plan "an economic Defensive Shield," in an attempt to create an analogy between the military operation's success and the hoped-for results of his economic proposals.

On his way back from Washington, following the terror attack in Rishon Letzion, Sharon was trumpeting the understanding he reached with President Bush concerning Arafat's neutralization. All that remains to be seen, if this coordination plays out as advertised, is whether Sharon, and not only Arafat, also ends up in trouble.

Ostensibly, Sharon managed to win the American administration's support for his plan to curtail Arafat's influence: Bush was persuaded by Israel's argument that there is no point in holding a dialogue with the Palestinian Authority until extensive changes occur in its functioning and in the power structure of its leadership. The position that President Bush presented is the culmination of the Americans' delegitimization of Arafat, which has been going on for several months.

It's unclear whether the idea of introducing reforms in the PA originated in Jerusalem or Washington, or if it was Sharon or Foreign Minister Shimon Peres who proposed it to the Americans. It is known that Natan Sharansky promoted it to members of the U.S. administration and to important American journalists, thus laying the groundwork for it being adopted as an American-Israeli plan of action. Sharansky has been arguing for years that a change of regime in the PA - a transition from a dictatorship to a democracy - is a prerequisite for the attainment of an accord with Israel. Without such a change, the Palestinian leadership will continue to impose terror on its people and to incite them against Israel, and by doing so, divert their attention from its own corruption and impotence.

Looking to the lessons he learned in the Soviet Union, Sharansky says that while, in a democracy, the leader aspires to bring prosperity and peace to his people and turns to war only as a last resort, in a dictatorship, the leader lives in perpetual fear of being deposed. So, to retain his grip on power, he needs an external enemy against whom he enlists his people in war. Only after Palestinian society goes through a real process of democratization will the conditions be ripe for negotiations on a final status agreement, says Sharansky (in a paper he presented to the prime minister last month, among other places).

The agreements reached with President Bush, on which Sharon reported after his return from the U.S., are a translation of Sharansky's vision into a political blueprint: Arafat will be asked to thin the ranks of the PA's security forces and to concentrate them under a single command; the donor countries will keep an eye on the money they transfer to the PA to ensure that it isn't channeled into financing terror attacks; and Arafat will be either be pushed aside or bumped up to a figurehead position, allowing an alternate leadership to do the actual running of the PA.

Ignoring for a moment the workability of these understandings, Sharon must ask himself: Let's say it all comes true - what would he then be prepared to offer the new Palestinian leadership and the international patrons guaranteeing the propriety of its administration? Doesn't he realize that having obtained this coordination with President Bush about the necessary framework for starting a process of dialogue with the Palestinians, he is bringing closer the moment of truth in which he will have to confront the world's demand that Israel give up all of the territories in order to achieve peace?

Killing time

Most likely, Sharon is telling himself that the moment of truth is still as far off as the political horizon he has been so reluctant to outline over the past year. The chances that the PA will meet the conditions presented by President Bush are so minuscule that he doesn't feel the need now to get into any tough political and ideological battles over the nature of the final status agreement, the future of the settlements and permanent borders. He continues to stall for time.

Sharon can even set aside his declared willingness (which, as far as is known, was accompanied by a promise to President Bush) to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state (and thus avert the hazards of the upcoming decision on this matter, due to be taken when the Likud Central Committee convenes two days from now) by saying there's no rush: First, Arafat must comply with the conditions set by President Bush. But this complacency could soon prove unwarranted, like the wave of self-congratulation he indulged in following the ersatz success of Operation Defensive Shield.

Contrary to Sharon's original intentions, in recent weeks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been undergoing a process of internationalization. Shimon Peres feels that this is an inevitable development that derives from the dissolution of the Cold War, the nature of ballistic weapons and the spread of terrorism that knows no borders. The international community is intervening in conflicts between nations in order to isolate them and keep them from expanding. Peres takes a positive view of the involvement of the "Madrid Quartet" in resolving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, and believes that, in the end, the paper he drafted with Abu Ala will serve as the basis for talks on a final accord between the parties.

Peres continues to maintain that this paper offers Israel and the Palestinians the chance for a practical accord that will enable them to make their way down from the trees climbed by President Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit. Still, this week, there were indications that Peres' attitude concerning Arafat's status was changing: He no longer insists that the PA chairman is indispensable if Israel is to reach an accord with the Palestinians. In private conversations, he appeared to accept the theory that Israel's negotiating partner could be someone else in Arafat's circle, and that negotiations ought to be conducted under an international umbrella in the form of the Madrid Quartet.

Besides the growing internationalization of the conflict, the results of the policy that Sharon has pursued are also working against him: He has not been able to keep his promise to the voter to bring peace and security. All his hopes of quashing terror by means of military force are being shattered right before his eyes. The reflex to respond with a military operation, which exerted its pull on him again yesterday morning after the bombing in Rishon Letzion, will not succeed in fundamentally altering the state of relations between Israel and the Palestinians: A military action - whether limited or broad - cannot uproot terrorism. This was proved in the West Bank and will be proved again in Gaza.

Military operations are also destined to leave victims on the Israeli side. Even when they lead to specific achievements, they cannot uproot the Palestinians' motivation and capacity to keep striking at Israel. Decisions motivated by the theory that whatever was not achieved by force can be achieved by more force, will only lead those who make them to more despair and frustration.

Late Wednesday night, the cabinet was presented with a proposal for military action that was agreed upon by the IDF and the defense minister. The plan distinguished between a response to the suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion and the desire to exact retribution from Arafat personally. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer examined the proposals brought to him by the General Staff and decided upon the extent of the military action. When Sharon returned to Israel, he was given the recommendation.

At the cabinet meeting, the proposal was presented in very general terms. This angered some of the ministers, who claimed that they were being asked to approve an operation that could potentially take on dimensions beyond what they intended. Others meanwhile complained that they were being kept busy discussing military plans instead of being included in a fundamental discussion of the objectives of the confrontation with the Palestinians.

Officially, the prime minister and defense minister did not need the cabinet's approval: The possibility of conducting a military operation in Gaza was already approved following the Passover suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya. The renewed agreement that was obtained early yesterday morning was essentially a pro forma exercise meant to project a show of solidarity. Before the cabinet meeting, among the defense establishment, the prevailing assessment was that the Operation Defensive Shield had not changed a thing: The quiet that followed was deceiving; a number of terrorist attacks were being foiled every day.

This should be kept in mind before great expectations are raised for the results of the military response decided upon by the cabinet. The delay in putting the plan into action derived from operational considerations, but there were some cabinet members who said afterward that it might also have been a reflection of the doubts about such an action's usefulness. In Ben-Eliezer's circle, one repeatedly hears the contention that the military measures against the Palestinians must be coupled with a political initiative; otherwise, the conflict will simply continue to cause a lot of blood to be shed. The trouble with Ben-Eliezer is that this sober approach is constantly vying with his more brash and visceral reaction to terror attacks, which comes to the fore at decisive moments.

To expel or not to expel?

It was obvious from the outset that the idea of expelling Yasser Arafat would not be brought to fruition: It stood in opposition to the promises that Sharon gave the U.S. (when he sought America's assistance in rescuing Israel from the UN Security Council plan to form a committee of inquiry to investigate the IDF's conduct in the Jenin refugee camp), and in opposition to the recommendations he received from the intelligence community. In meetings two nights ago, officials from army intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, as well as the coordinator of activity in the territories, all expressed opposition to expelling the Palestinian leader from the territories. Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, however, again proposed getting rid of Arafat.

A more practical question was also discussed: If the decision to expel Arafat is made, how is Israel to get its hands on him? When he was besieged in his Ramallah compound, it appeared that this could not be done without endangering the lives of the PA leader and those around him. How much more unfeasible it is now that he is wandering about freely and able to surround himself with a throng of human shields, including visitors from abroad.

The pretext for recommending Arafat's expulsion at this point also wasn't convincing: The lethal suicide bombing was carried out by a Hamas operative, not by a Fatah man, and its timing couldn't have been more inauspicious for Arafat - just when Sharon was meeting with Bush in Washington, and a few days before the arrival of American envoys aiming to establish a stable cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

The bombing in Rishon Letzion was clearly the latest in a long series of despicable attacks by radical Islamic elements, who always act whenever any chance of achieving a bit of calm in the armed conflict is on the horizon. This insight was not sufficient to cause the cabinet to decide on total restraint (as happened after the bombing at the Dolphinarium) and thus possibly to avert another dizzying spin of the cycle of violence, but it was enough to take the idea of striking at Arafat personally off the agenda, at least for now.