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Six explosive devices, similar in their impact to Scud missiles, went off on Sunday around the country - from the Meron junction, through to Jerusalem and along West Bank roads.

True, these were not surface-to-surface missiles, and were, instead, bombs and shooting sprees; but the result, or (as the Home Front Command puts it) the "population's behavior," was similar to reactions to a missile attack - panic, despair, the feeling that the political leadership ought to make haste and take action, even if such action departs from cool logic. This development is very bad news as Israel prepares for the possibility of missiles being fired from Iraq or Lebanon.

Those in the Israel Defense Forces who prepare for such threats - air force officers in particular - excel at operating in accordance with an orderly, systematic work plan. If, for example, such officers decide after an operations analysis that it is desirable to first attack surface-to-air missile batteries, which protect the launch sites of surface-to-surface missiles, and to go after the surface-to-surface weapons only after these batteries are destroyed, the Defense Minister will have to persuade the government to stand up to public pressure and to refrain from ordering the air force to change the plan.

The temptation to change the plan will be powerful: Public calls will be voiced in favor of making haste and diverting all resources to an attack on launchers, partly due to the fear that warheads might contain biological or chemical materials. Political power and emotional resolve will be required to rebuff such public pressure and allow the army to complete its job efficiently, in a manner that saves lives and equipment.

Judging by his performance yesterday, one cannot help but doubt that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has the character traits needed at such a zero-hour emergency. He is, to be sure, a superb commander on the battlefield, having twice led divisions in fierce fights. But in these battles, he was accountable to superior officers. This time around, there are no superiors in rank; there is only a public full of voters - from the Likud party and others - who are liable to grow disillusioned with him and choose his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sharon knows - and he has acknowledged this in closed meetings - that the opportunity to improve Israel's diplomatic position ought to be seized, and that military actions against the Palestinians should be kept in a limited-conflict context. Military operations that are too large and too ostentatious will exact a cost that is higher than any utility extracted from them.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, as an officer at the IDF's General Staff put it, "continues to make movements like a swimmer, but his strokes are in the air." Sources in the field report that at least half of the Palestinian population opposes suicide strikes, is outraged by corruption in the PA leadership, and seeks the easing of conditions that has been promised once there is a lull in the violence.

Defense Minister Benjamim Ben-Eliezer is trying to link an Arab quartet to the existing one, comprised of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. This Arab quartet would include Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the moderate new leadership in the PA. President George W. Bush, who is obsessed with Saddam Hussein and has erased Arafat's number from his address book, supports Israel with increased determination when Hamas murders Americans in Jerusalem.

This is precisely the moment when Sharon ought to be reminded of words he uttered after the terror attack at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium more than 14 months ago: "Restraint is power." Restraint means an effort to contain the conflict, lest it escalates into a major war in the territories and beyond them, and topple the wall that Israel has erected to block off Arafat.

IDF generals have explained to Sharon that the current choice is between preventing the next terror attack, by deploying forces around a West Bank square (Nablus-Jenin-Tul Karm-Qalqilyah) and using combat helicopters and drones to enforce restrictions of movement on roads, and seeking a flamboyant display of vengeance for the previous terror attack.

IDF troops used for the second objective will reduce the manpower available to realize the first choice - a future-oriented goal that is clearly preferable in the long run. The problem is that Sharon has to succeed in the short term, if he is to survive politically.