Background / Will Sharon Play Into Arafat's Hands?

The tougher the measures Ariel Sharon orders in retaliation for renewed terrorism, the more he may risk playing into the hands of Palestinians, especially militant organizations and his life's adversary Yasser Arafat.

The tougher the measures Ariel Sharon orders when he launches Israel's response to the deadliest suicide bombing since the start of the IDF's massive West Bank operation, the more he may risk playing into the hands of the Palestinians, especially militant organizations and his life's adversary Yasser Arafat.

Senior Israeli officials said the blast, in which a Hamas bomber killed 15 people with powerful explosives that ripped through a Rishon Lezion pool hall Tuesday night, served to bolster the prime minister's repeated contentions that Yasser Arafat could never again serve as a partner for peace talks, and that his Authority acted as a spur and not a brake for Palestinian terrorism.

In the cracked-mirror reality of the Middle East, if terrorism seemed to be serving only to strengthen Sharon's hand in resisting peace moves and ordering wide military offensives, the prime minister's policies aimed at isolating, delegitimizing and otherwise curbing his nemesis Arafat have almost singlehandedly re-invented the Palestinian leader as a hero of his own people.

Arafat, derided by his constituency until recently for the corruption and incompetence of his adminstration, emerged from his IDF-imposed isolation last week with a newfound aura of vindication

At the same time, Sharon's Operation Defensive Shield, launched in late March after an unprecedented string of suicide bombings rocked Israel, gained immediate immortality in Palestinian national mythology as a landmark example of valiant resistance to overwhelming military force.

A furious Sharon, breaking off scheduled talks in Washington after word of the attack reached him at the close of a meeting with President George Bush, minced few words in holding Arafat responsible for the bombing. With a military cadence, he said of Arafat: "He who calls for millions of martyrs is guilty. He who incites incessantly is guilty. He who finaces terrorism is guilty. He who dispatches terror is guilty.

Israel will not surrender to the blackmail of terrorism, Sharon continued, hinting at the possible expulsion of Arafat along with a resumption of large-scale military action in the territories akin to Defensive Shield.

"The operation has yielded tremendous achievements, but our work is not done. The battle continues and will continue until all those who believe that they can make gains through the use of terror will cease to exist - cease to exist."

But even as Sharon spoke, the potential diplomatic risk to Israel of such an operation was underscored by a United Nations vote condemning Israeli army operations in the offensive, centering on hotly disputed events in fierce fighting in the Jenin refugee camp last month.

Undeterred by news of the Rishon Lezion bloodbath, the General Assembly voted 74-4 to approve condemnation of the IDF offensive, and of the Jewish state's opposition to a UN fact-finding team over the refugee camp, where Palestinians had accused the IDF of massacres, charges flatly rejected by Israel.

The Arab sponsors of the resolution successfully fought EU efforts to amend the resolution to include condemnation of suicide bombings.

Other factors that could temper a decision for a reprise of the largest-scale IDF operation in a generation are the possible economic and social effects of mobilizing tens of thousands of Israeli reservists for harrowing months at a time.

True to the theme of self-destruction that has informed the conflict for decades, the timing of the Rishon bombing could hardly have been worse for a Palestinian Authority anxious to rebuild its vastly depleted credibility with the Bush administration.

Accordingly, there were reports that enraged PA officials had told Hamas figures that the militant Islamic organization had served Israel's interests in the bombing, which may have been launched from Gaza, all but untouched by Defensive Shield.

In fact, suggests Ha'aretz commentator Ze'ev Schiff, "It's possible that what Hamas really wants, is that we go into Gaza."

Israel must now make a comprehensive calculation of what it really wants to gain in by a new offensive in the territories. "We are in the midst of a major war of attrition," Schiff notes. "Israel need not rush into this. It must be planned with intelligence, for minimal casualties, with pinpoint targets."

The last thing Israel needs, Schiff concludes, is "destroying everything, causing total chaos for no reason."

Alongside calls for stronger action against the Palestinians, the bombing also spurred fresh support for establishing a fence between Israel and Palestinian-ruled areas, a move strongly opposed by rightists who fear the security fence could turn into a de facto border partitioning Israel from the territories.

Said reserve brigadier-general Danny Rothschild, former Israeli policy chief for the territories, "If suicide bombers continue to blow up in clubs and in buses, and we go ahead with Defensive Shield 2, 3, and reach 10 and even Defensive Shield 16, nothing will come of this.

"We have no real alternative," Rothschild said. "We must put up a barrier, evacuate the settlements on the other side, and tell the Palestinians: 'Friends, we're doing what's good for us. When you're ready to talk a final deal, we'll do it. 'Til then, we're looking after ourselves."