Analysis /Waiting to Identify, Encircle and Destroy

Too many of the Israel Defense Forces' past actions - Qibya, Samu, Litani (only a partial list) - were carried out in haste, without proper deliberation.

Too many of the Israel Defense Forces' past actions - Qibya, Samu, Litani (only a partial list) - were carried out in haste, without proper deliberation. They were conducted based on a perception shared by the media, the military and political and public circles, with the prevailing consensus that Israeli blood cannot be shed with impunity, that the enemy must be hurt in reprisal.

These were backward-looking military operations. They were oriented toward the source of woes caused to Israelis. There was no forward thrust; the probable result of the actions was not the main consideration.

Black December, a two-day period marred by 30 deaths, which have joined the 200 casualties of the preceding 14 months, erased both restraint and the continuation of present policies from the menu of options and responses that is available to government ministers and the IDF's chief of staff. The public is demanding that the political and military leaders do something new and different. This time, the response must be at a higher level and must come quicker. More than anything else, it must be stronger.

Generally, such demands are a sure-fire recipe for a mess-up the outcome of which is likely to worsen Israel's plight, leaving the country in a state worse than its original woes, worse than the problems that the operation was designed to eradicate.

Describing American military objectives in the operation in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell vowed to identify, encircle and then destroy Bin-Laden's terror network. Such objectives are hardly foreign to Israel. But the questions are: Against whom and to what degree are they to be implemented?

The Shin Bet security service can pick out targets and the IDF can encircle them. Israel seemed poised last night to go this far. The chief of staff and then the defense minister briefed ministers about the situation; and the government waited for decisions to be reached by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, following his meeting with the U.S. president.

Forces were to prepare for action and rifles were to be cocked; but the triggers were not to be pulled just yet. Forces were to take positions that could be used for roadblocks, or as stepping stones for deeper incursions. But the same forces were to be left waiting at these positions, wound up and ready to go, prepared for the next stage, for the political leadership to reach a decision.

Security and political officials face one major choice. They can focus efforts on the devil - on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical, violent organizations - or the scope of the response can be expanded to include the lesser devil - i.e., the Palestinian Authority and its various affiliates, including Fatah and the Tanzim militias.

One layer of constraint was shed yesterday in the diplomatic arena. Israel received de facto clearance to strike extremist Islamic organizations. These are overt, active enemies and the use of force against them is hardly likely to disturb the Bush administration.

Less clear is the probable response of foreign powers to military actions conducted against indirect, more passive enemies, against Arafat and elements in his regime that, till yesterday, had abstained from a struggle against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

During the past year, Palestinian terror has transmogrified. What was once a relatively small cottage industry is now a large industrial enterprise. Responses on the scale of actions undertaken by Arafat in 1996 (a period when, just as now, a series of terror attacks washed up a political threat, based in Benjamin Netanyahu's camp, to Israel's government) will not suffice. Then, as now, an Israeli strike against a symbolic Hamas figure (then, the "engineer," Yihye Ayash; now, Mahmud Abu-Hanoud) was used as a pretext to justify the sequence of terror attacks. In both periods, Arafat played for time, hoping that pressure would ease after elections in Israel, or when a furious White House started to cool off.

Arrests of terror suspects will not suffice to thwart future attacks, particularly if such arrests merely entail the temporary incarceration of violent extremists. If Arafat really means business, he will send his prisoners to a interrogation cells akin to ones utilized by the Shin Bet.

One top IDF officer explained yesterday, "Arafat's fate has been decided, owing to a rare combination of events: the sequence of attacks - Haifa after Jerusalem (the capital alone would not have been enough); Zinni's visit and the rapid, private lesson about Arafat's duplicity that he received; the prime minister's meeting with Bush that took place after the U.S. leader had been briefed by security officials and had watched the television reports; the Bin Laden analogy; internal Palestinian dissent; and the feeling that more violence is futile.

"All this together has created a critical mass that may not be strong enough to force Arafat to make a strategic change, but it will compel him to adopt the guise of a leader who is pursuing dozens of Hamas men. Once he's tracked them down, he'll have to explain how, suddenly, he can exert control and arrest suspects," the officer said.

Bush's refusal to meet with Arafat, or even to proffer a simple handshake, hurt and frustrated the Palestinian leader, Israeli analysts say. Now, interpreting this diplomatic oversight as a personal insult, Arafat has U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni wandering from one terror attack to another. Zinni is accustomed to political wile, but not of the cheap, transparent sort that he has encountered on this visit.

The calamitous killings of the past two days have united various branches of Israel's security forces. Though a response will have to wait for discussions to be sponsored by the prime minister after his return, it appears that age-old divisions in these forces have been overcome - divisions that have separated major generals from Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, Chief of Staff Mofaz from Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Ben-Eliezer from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Sharon from President Bush.

This wall-to-wall unity portends trouble for Arafat.