JERUSALEM, July 10 (JTA) — Considering that air, water and fire are essential elements not just of life but of war, Israelis this week could hardly feel more besieged.
In the morning on Monday, takeoffs and traffic at Ben-Gurion Airport were severely disrupted following a bomb scare. In the evening, greater Tel Aviv’s water supply was announced undrinkable due to a “technical” contamination that raised fears about the vulnerability of the country’s water system.
And throughout it all, the fiery Palestinian uprising continued to take its toll of casualties.
Against this grim backdrop — and increasingly resigned to the idea that a major Israeli attack of some sort has become all but inevitable — few bothered even to take note of yet another Palestinian promise to “effectively” combat terrorism.
And yet that is just what Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reported, and hailed, in a Cabinet meeting Sunday, quickly eliciting hostile responses from right-wing ministers and exposing the basic ideological differences between Peres and his partner-of-convenience, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
According to Peres, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Saturday night convened a high-powered forum where — weeks after he agreed to an American plan for a cease-fire — he ordered his assorted security organizations to start arresting perpetrators of terror attacks and their accomplices.
Peres’s conclusion from the report, and from the level of violence that has diminished since Arafat signed the cease-fire agreement brokered last month by CIA Director George Tenet, is that the Palestinian Authority will make a sincere effort to reduce violence.
Based on this assessment, Peres concluded that Israel should begin to implement the recommendations of the Mitchell Commission — officially halting all settlement-building activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — as a prelude to resuming peace talks.
Sharon reportedly has rejected Peres’s approach, insisting that nothing short of a comprehensive cessation of Palestinian violence will constitute compliance with the Tenet plan. Under the plan, a week of quiet will be followed by a period of confidence-building measures, and then peace negotiations.
The Bush administration, for its part, is trying cautiously to uphold and enhance the nominal cease-fire, while desperately trying to avoid drowning in the Mideast quagmire that sucked in the Clinton administration.
So far, Bush has refrained from inviting Arafat to Washington or even renewing the personal mediation roles of Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell. But Bush is sending a deputy assistant secretary of state, David Satterfield, in an open-ended effort to narrow the gaps between Jerusalem and Gaza with an eye to implementing the Mitchell Report, the Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday.
Clearly, the dispatch of such a relatively low-ranking official shows that the Bush administration has no illusions about the prospects for stabilizing the situation, let alone generating a breakthrough.
In the field, meanwhile, violence continues to rage. Israeli troops on Tuesday demolished over two dozen Palestinian structures in a Gaza Strip refugee camp, triggering some of the worst fighting since the cease-fire was declared. Three Israeli soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously, and five Palestinians.
Israel Radio said some 18 houses, six stores and two buildings used for agricultural purposes were torn down. The army said the structures had been used by Palestinian gunmen to attack Israeli troops along the border with Egypt.
An army spokesman said the area where the troops operated was under Israeli security control, but the Palestinian Authority accused Israel of an incursion into P.A.-ruled areas. Speaking in Ramallah after talks in Jordan with King Abdullah, Arafat said he would seek international action against Israel.
On Sunday night, outside an Israeli army camp near Hebron in the West Bank, Capt. Shai Shalom Cohen was killed when a roadside bomb was detonated outside the jeep he was driving.
In the Gaza Strip, one day after Hamas said it was sending 10 suicide bombers into Israel, a bomber’s explosives went off prematurely, killing him moments before he would have exploded a bus full of passengers just outside the Kissufim border checkpoint.
In between, grenade attacks were launched repeatedly at Israeli soldiers in the southern Gaza Strip.
In all, the Israeli army says the level of violence has declined to about a dozen incidents a day — hardly a full cease-fire, yet less than half the number of daily incidents before the Tenet plan was signed.
The Palestinian Authority said Monday it had arrested an accomplice to the suicide bomber who failed in his mission at Kissufim. The arrest, the Palestinians said, was part of a new campaign to prevent terror attacks.
While that sounded like a vindication of Peres’s optimistic report, the government’s dominant, hawkish element was all but losing patience this week with what many there consider Sharon’s inexplicable and intolerable reluctance to order a major assault on the Palestinian Authority.
Leading the criticism was Environment Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, who said at a Cabinet meeting that the army should launch a massive attack with artillery, fighter planes, assault helicopters and elite infantry units.
“Under the current situation,” Hanegbi said, according to the Yediot Achronot daily, “the Palestinians have lost all their motivation to halt the violence.”
Considered a hard-liner even by Likud Party standards, Hanegbi was joined by Shas’s often dovish minister of labor and welfare, Shlomo Benizri, who asked: “Just what kind of additional price should we pay before we finally respond?”
For now, Sharon’s response to such swipes from his right flank remains as unexpectedly moderate as it has been since his election in February.
“Everyone here” around the Cabinet table “thinks they are heroes, but in the end I am the one bearing the responsibility, and no one can teach me how to handle terrorism,” he responded to Hanegbi and Benizri.
In a phone call Monday night with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in fact, Sharon called for “constant international pressure to bring about the end of Palestinian terror, violence and incitement.”
However, the Israeli consensus is that a major attack is in the making, even if no one can forecast precisely the timing or method. Ironically, this state of mind was echoed by the two men possibly most frustrated by Sharon’s rise to power — former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Speaking at a Tel Aviv University conference that addressed the media’s role in wars, Barak harshly attacked Arafat and, by extension, Peres.
Blaming the P.A. chairman for resorting to terror and presiding over the collapse of the peace process, Barak said Israeli leaders should no longer meet with Arafat, lest he be allowed “to once again don his mask” of peace partner.
As for conditions for a “military operation” — a euphemism for a big attack — former chief of staff Barak said one should be ordered only when there remains no other choice. However, many listeners understood Barak to be implying that the current conditions constituted such a case.
Speaking even less cryptically, Netanyahu told the same forum that military action should be “fast and strong” — a hint that he considers Sharon’s response to date slow and weak.
(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)