'Give Back Territory and Kill Arabs'

"To return territory and kill Arabs" is a favorite expression of the "ranch forum" of Ariel Sharon's advisers. In 2000, when adman-strategist Reuven Adler and company reshaped and polished Sharon's image, a rule was made: The public likes leaders who show diplomatic moderation and military toughness, who return land and kill Arabs. Sharon followed the rule during his five-year reign, and his heir-apparent, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will do the same.

Last weekend, in his foreign policy program, Olmert returned a lot of territory. Yesterday he completed the equation by sending in the Israel Defense Forces and its bulldozers to nibble at the walls of Jericho Prison and to threaten the murderers of Minister Rehavam Ze'evi and the people involved in the Karin A arms ship with imprisonment or death.

Olmert did not seek out or initiate this operation, and he would have passed on it had he been given the chance. It was too dangerous. But as soon as it was forced upon him by the desertion of the foreign monitors, he had to act. If Ze'evi's murderers had escaped and given ludicrous interviews to the Israeli television channels, Olmert and his Kadima party would have been badly hurt. He would have been seen as weak, as someone who can only give back territory. Both the left and the right would have had a field day with him. Yesterday Labor and Likud were forced to praise the "security forces." Had the operation gone wrong, or if the prisoners had escaped, the criticism from both sides of the political spectrum would have focused on Olmert, not the army.

Kadima's strategists could not have wished for a more successful operation only a day before the pollsters began their work for the weekend papers. This week's polls are critical: If Kadima's slide can be halted at 37 or 38 Knesset seats less than two weeks before the election, then there will be a general sense that the battle has been won. If it was only up to the advisers, they would have given the green light for the Jericho operation next week. Yesterday morning Olmert toured Ariel and declared that the city will forever remain part of Israel. The move was intended to curry favor with the right in the wake of the shock wrought by last weekend's interviews. But the Ariel visit was swallowed up by images of Palestinian prisoners being marched toward an Israeli jail.

Sharon promised, Olmert kept the promise. If that's not passing on the baton, then what is? Now we must wait and see whether Kadima restrains itself, or whether it uses images from the Jericho operation in its election broadcasts.