JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is resisting pressure to step up Israel’s military response to the violence and terror in the Palestinian territories.
Back from the United States, Barak plunged into consultations with top ministers and army generals following the deaths Monday of four Israelis — two soldiers and two civilians — in a series of attacks on road traffic in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Informed sources claim the pressures on Barak are coming not only from the Jewish settlers and from the right of the political spectrum, but from within the Israel Defense Force’s senior officer corps too.
But the sources said the premier was determined to stick with his policy of relative restraint. They said he would not order the IDF to change its basic strategy, despite the mounting Israeli casualties.
Some observers link Barak’s position to reports out of Washington that President Clinton still hopes to host another three-way summit before he relinquishes the presidency on Jan. 20. According to these reports, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat voiced his readiness to attend such a summit, together with Barak and Clinton, when he met with the U.S. president in Washington on Nov. 9.
Barak, it appears, has signaled his consent, too, even though his public position is that no diplomacy can go ahead so long as the level of violence is not significantly reduced.
Events this week underscored his position.
On Monday, Israel sustained its heaviest daily toll of casualties since the violence began in the West Bank and Gaza in late September.
Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis that day — including two soldiers and a woman — during three separate ambushes. Eight other people were wounded in the attacks.
Hours after, Israel responded with a decision to seal off all Palestinian towns.
Two days later, at least seven Palestinians were killed in clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops.
Israeli forces had prepared for heightened violence Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s symbolic declaration of Palestinian independence from exile in Algiers.
Clinton’s meetings with the two Middle East protagonists drew scant attention because of the ongoing saga of the presidential election, which continues to rivet the media and minds of America and the world. The participants, for their part, preferred to divulge little of substance, either in their public comments or in off-the-record briefings by their aides.
For domestic political reasons, neither Barak nor Arafat was prepared to deviate publicly from the tough positions each took with him into the Oval Office. Arafat demands an international force to “protect” the Palestinians from the IDF.
Barak insists on a serious and sustained reduction of the violence in accordance with understandings reached at the Sharm el-Sheik summit last month and subsequently confirmed — but not implemented — at a meeting between Arafat and Israeli Cabinet member Shimon Peres.
Barak’s determination to eschew military escalation against the Palestinians, at least for the moment, was evident in his carefully crafted address to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Chicago on Monday.
“In the current round of unrest we have until now taken a path of great restraint despite constant provocations,” he said. “We are trying to minimize bloodshed and prevent a widening of the confrontation, but we will know how to respond.”
But Ariel Sharon’s rejected the prime minister’s approach.
Sharon told the U.S. Jewish leaders, as he has repeatedly told Israeli audiences, that he believes the IDF can defeat the “Al-Aksa intifada” without triggering a major escalation in the territories and without sparking a general conflagration in the region.
“Jews are under siege and under fire,” Sharon said in his address. “I fought 52 years ago in the war for independence to defend Jerusalem. I did not think the day would come after 50 years, that it would happen again that Jerusalem is under siege.”
His sentiments were echoed Tuesday night in downtown Jerusalem, where West Bank Jewish settlers demonstrated under the slogan, “Allow the IDF to Win.”
By the same token, Sharon made it clear in Chicago that he is no longer interested in serving under Barak in a national unity government, but rather is focusing all his energies and those of his Likud Party on bringing the Barak government down.
Those energies are being thwarted, for the moment, by a tenuous “safety net” extended to the prime minister by the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Some political pundits are warning, though, that the holes in that net are growing bigger every day.
Helping Barak stay afloat politically is the plain and sobering fact that no specific alternative policy has been articulated by the opposition, other than Sharon’s vague assertion that he could do better if he were in power.
The bleak mood discernible around the nation seems to stem from a sense that neither Barak nor anyone else has a foolproof solution to offer.
After the attacks Monday, the army announced closures around all the major Palestinian cities. But next day Palestinian cars and pedestrians were still to be seen moving between the cities.
“There is just no way of effecting a hermetic sealing-off,” admitted IDF’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz.
The IDF pledged to strike back at the individuals who perpetrated the attacks. Cabinet member Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said they appeared to be Islamic Jihad activists. But Ben-Eliezer added that the attacks were unlikely to have been carried out without the assent of the Palestinian leadership, seeming to implicate Arafat and his ministers.
In that, he spoke for a hard-line ministerial minority that tends to the view that any thought of returning to the peace process is fanciful at best, reckless at worst.
Ben-Eliezer, a longtime personal friend of Sharon, has himself been at the vanguard of efforts to forge a unity coalition between Labor and Likud. He still believes this is both possible and desirable.
Most ministers, Peres, Yossi Beilin and Haim Ramon among them, still hold out hope that a negotiated settlement can be salvaged out of the present crisis.
Increasingly of late, this group’s muted criticism of the prime minister for his handling of Arafat and of the peace talks has made itself heard outside their intimate circle. Some has seeped into the media.
Barak’s insistence that restraint still stay the order of the day, and his reported readiness to give Clinton a final chance to pull the parties together, will improve his standing with these Cabinet doves.
Whether, however, it will improve the chances of his government’s survival is another question. The days ahead will doubtless see redoubled efforts in the Knesset and in the court of public opinion to defeat the premier and bring about new elections.