Who's the Eccentric Here?

With time, it becomes more and more clear that the principal motive of Ariel Sharon is to avoid making any decisions that would fundamentally change the situation created after 1967.

So what have we had? Encirclement and closures, pre-emptive strikes and liquidations, collective punishments and targeted attacks, pinpoint operations and Operation Defensive Shield, dropping bombs from planes and launching missiles from helicopters, a long siege on Yasser Arafat and quick destruction of buildings at his Muqata headquarters. Now on the agenda are proposals for "targeted occupation" and "a war of stings."

There is only one idea that we are not trying again: renewing negotiations with the Palestinians. Whoever raises this alternative proposal is considered naive and pitiful: How can we trust the word of that dastardly leader from Ramallah, who rejected Ehud Barak's generous offer and turned, without batting an eye, to the path of terror?

In the face of this attitude, the following depiction of the situation is not untenable: since the Camp David conference, there has not been any positive development in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel's military responses to the murderous violence of the Palestinians, which Arafat orchestrates through his actions, or failure to take action, have not succeeded in improving the state's situation and the level of vulnerability of its residents. On the contrary, the crisis deepens from day to day and the oppressive feeling grows heavier: people are getting killed, the economy is tumbling toward the abyss, and the political siege on Israel is being tightened.

Despite all this, no one in the leadership is stopping for a moment to ask: Perhaps it would be worthwhile to try another way? And if someone is asking himself this (Shimon Peres, for example), he is not daring to translate his reservations into an effective political move. One can't help wondering why it is considered eccentric to suggest returning to the negotiating table, while recommending a response of force again and again, which doesn't solve a thing, is considered the essence of intelligence.

The IDF is doing its best to defend the state and its residents, the Shin Bet does wonders in the information it collects, and the police have demonstrated resourcefulness and courage in fending off waves of suicide bombers. Nonetheless, the terror attacks have claimed over 500 victims since the outbreak of the intifada and more families are added to the rows of mourners every day. Under these circumstances, is it foolish to demand a reassessment of the pattern of thinking that dictates the Israeli response to the Palestinian uprising?

The Israeli approach since October 2000 has been based on two assumptions: (1) that after the Palestinians rejected President Clinton's peace plan (that was based on Ehud Barak's ideas), they missed a unique opportunity that would not come again, and (2) that there is only one fitting response to Palestinian terror - crushing it by force.

The national goal, even if it remains undeclared, is derived from these two assumptions: to maintain the Israeli hold on the territories captured in 1967. The logic behind the definition of this goal is two-fold: There is no partner on the other side for putting an end to hostile relations, and no political force within Israel could muster a majority for changing the status quo. The operational conclusion that follows from this perspective has been expressed these 21 months: a response only of force to Palestinian terror and a call for the public to grit its teeth and stand strong until the skies clear.

Experience shows that the clouds are just getting thicker. The IDF is exercising the right to self-defense when it penetrates deep into Palestinian territory and pulls out "wanted" suspects. But this operational routine begs the question of whether none of the higher-ups understand that the number of Palestinians the IDF seeks to arrest is huge, that the uprising is a popular one and that its motives do not just spring from a violent temperament, but also express a legitimate aspiration for national liberation? How long will the state need to continue living through this severe, multi-layered and drawn-out crisis? Where will it end? Will it come to an end? Is there a leader who has a clear idea about how to end the crisis?

With time, it becomes more and more clear that the principal motive of Ariel Sharon is to avoid making any decisions that would fundamentally change the situation created after 1967. He has no intention of giving up the Israeli hold on the territories - which is the requisite condition for ending the conflict with the Palestinians - or of endangering his tenure in power. These are the goals that will guide him in his conversation with President Bush tomorrow, and from this we can deduce what the state can expect during the coming period.