The Thelma and Louise of the Middle East

Without making the government of Israel's political vision clear, or without even going into the details that would be considered an opening position that could be eroded in negotiations, no aggregated military successes will help.

Notwithstanding the necessary military activity to deny terror its achievements, by refusing to present the Palestinians with something positive that would emerge from a cease-fire, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is shirking his responsibility as a statesman. In a paradox that has already become a tradition in Israeli governments, Sharon is behaving like a super chief of staff, while Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz is acting like one of the government's ministers, if not its premier one.

In another four months, Mofaz will end his term as chief of staff without much pleasure, with a troubled relationship with Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and under constant - if not always direct - criticism from Sharon. His hope to end his term with at least the semblance of success has been dashed. After 312 dead (220 of them citizens) in 17 months, Sharon and Mofaz are now fighting like two angry partners over their failure to find an integrated political and military response to the Palestinian offensive that began at the end of September 2000.

The person who initiated the offensive and continues to stand beside the cash register as his people are killed and their country destroyed is Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. If it had been former prime minister Ehud Barak who had bombed the Balata refugee camp (using his favorite phrase from commissions of inquiry) "out of the clear blue sky" in an effort to pressure Arafat into agreeing to political concessions, public opinion in Israel and the world would have been outraged, and justifiably so.

What Arafat did is the parallel Palestinian version of using that kind of forceful leverage to bring about a political surrender. Instead of a surrender, however, and after four months of negotiations under fire - nearly a quarter of the period of the hostilities so far - Arafat got his partner to leap into the abyss. Arafat and Sharon are the Thelma and Louise of the Middle East.

Regional history shows that vicious attacks in February and March can very quickly result in Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon, who tried to exploit Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' weakness in the wake of the 1996 terror attacks in order to join the government, was blocked at the gates by Netanyahu's election as prime minister - and ended up with a Netanyahu-Peres government. Sharon shivers at the thought that Netanyahu will once again build himself up on the former's weakness, but the prime minister has no military tricks in his bag that will block his rival's way back.

No defensive framework, no defined line, no obstacles, fortified or mined (and with massive ground troops to protect and patrol it) can stop individuals who wear explosive belts, or organizations shooting rockets and mortars from afar.

The separation line will be a target for attacks, just like the Israel Defense Forces' checkpoints in the territories (and the police's in Jerusalem and Maccabim); so it will only help if it is compounded by an offensive along the lines of the Balata operations, and with political openness.

Without making the government of Israel's political vision clear, or without even going into the details that would be considered an opening position that could be eroded in negotiations, no aggregated military successes will help. Such were the raids on the refugee camps in Balata and Jenin, though they do not make up for the losses in Jerusalem, near Ofra, and in Gaza.

Those who cry out against every outrage in the territories fall silent, with no condemnation of those who blow up babies, when the bombers are from the Palestinian side. The Red Crescent and the Red Cross also remained silent when Palestinian ambulances carried armed men back and forth from the battles "at least 20 times," according to the commander of the Paratroop Brigade.

Avoiding inflicting casualties on Palestinian civilians was one of the instructions handed down when it came to the planning and execution of the raid.

Nevertheless, the brilliant engineering approach - moving from house to house by carving openings in the interior walls - that was intended to limit the number of casualties was, as usual, criticized, for the damage it caused to property - rather odd criticism coming from people who seek to preserve the sanctity of life.

The developers of the American neutron bomb, a nuclear device that kills without destroying property, were accused of being capitalist bombers - more interested in property than human life. The cutting disks used in the camps are like the neutron bomb in miniature, since walls can be rebuilt and lives can't. The degree to which one agrees to this, of course, depends on the question of whose lives are being saved.