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As Palestinian Attacks Intensify, Israelis Feel Miserable, Hopeless

The new editor of Ma’ariv, Amnon Dankner, best summed up the mood of the nation: “It can’t carry on like this,” was the headline of his front-page piece on Sunday.

Dankner’s article ran alongside a gallery of smiling young faces — the weekend’s Israeli death toll as the Palestinians escalated their terror offensive.

Like the headline on Dankner’s story, the paper’s main headline was a cry from the heart. “Israel: This Is War,” it proclaimed — as though anyone could call it anything else.

As the week wore on, the frequency of attempted and realized terror attacks intensified. The bombings, shootings and funerals seemed to blur in a constant catalog of misery. City streets and shopping malls looked bleak and desolate, despite the spring-like weather.

Fear stalks the land. And not just fear — but a growing sense, which pollsters can now quantify, that the leadership has no solutions to offer.

According to polls published last Friday, barely half of Israelis have a positive view of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s performance, a sharp decline from his approval ratings as little as a month ago.

Yet Sharon, back at work Sunday after a 10-day bout with the flu, is determined to fight the atmosphere of panic and despair, while not acceding to pressures from his own right wing to launch an all-out war against the Palestinians.

“What are you proposing?” Sharon asked witheringly of a hard-line Likud Knesset member, Yuval Steinitz, at a party caucus Monday. “That we go back into Gaza and run the lives of the people there? The advice of self- proclaimed experts who have done nothing and accomplished nothing in this area — well, I am not going to go back into Gaza.”

The remark about “self-proclaimed experts” also was taken as a swipe at Benjamin Netanyahu. Uninhibited now in his campaign to depose Sharon as Likud leader — and later as prime minister — Netanyhau advocates the destruction of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, which he considers a terrorist regime.

Sharon, who heard President Bush’s views on this matter barely a fortnight ago, dismisses Netanyahu’s rhetoric as demagoguery.

Sources close to Sharon say the Bush administration thoroughly despises Arafat, but opposes his removal for fear of the regional turmoil that could result — at a time when Washington needs relative quiet in the Middle East as it appears to be preparing a campaign against Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Despite his steady slippage in the polls, therefore, Sharon in effect is offering the Israeli public more of the same.

“Much more of the same,” in the words of an Israel Television commentator midweek, following a series of top- level consultations between the prime minister, key ministers and the senior Israel Defense Force command.

That means more retaliatory bombings of P.A. installations, more targeted killings of terrorist leaders, more incursions into Palestinian cities, more violent searches for arms and terror suspects, more closures and roadblocks in the Palestinian territories and more beefed-up policing of Israel’s own streets.

In addition, as Sharon told his party colleagues, there also will be more meetings with top Palestinian officials, like the meeting he held at his home three weeks ago with three senior Arafat aides — Ahmed Karia, speaker of the Palestinian Parliament; Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s deputy; and Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s top economic adviser.

“Whatever it needs to produce a cease-fire, I will do it,” Sharon declared.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, too, will continue his separate efforts with Karia to develop a cease-fire plan. The effort has Sharon’s consent — though neither Sharon nor Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, from Peres’ own Labor Party, believe the plan has much chance of success.

What there will not be is the kind of stepped-up warfare advocated, for instance, by Housing Minister Natan Sharansky. Sharansky is urging that the army be ordered to temporarily reoccupy Palestinian cities to conduct house-to-house searches for weapons.

All weapons in the West Bank and Gaza would be confiscated, under Sharansky’s plan. Later, the Palestinian police would be issued pistols — but nothing more.

Avigdor Lieberman, the minister of infrastructures and Sharansky’s rival for the votes of the Russian immigrant community, calls for even tougher action. His ally in the National Union-Israel, Our Home faction, Tourism Minister Binyamin Elon, openly talks about “transfer” — that is, the physical relocation of millions of Palestinians to other countries.

The settler leaders in the West Bank and Gaza openly voice their disillusionment with Sharon, once their hero, who they believe has “gone soft.”

Others believe that, despite his public pronouncements, Sharon indeed is intent on bringing down Arafat’s regime — but is too diplomatically sensitive, and patient enough, to do it slowly and carefully.

In any case, Sharon’s resistance to right-wing pressure appears to be earning him scant praise on the left.

On Saturday night, some 10,000 people attended a Peace Now rally in Tel Aviv. Speakers, among them Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian aristocrat-academic who represents the PLO in Jerusalem, and Yossi Sarid, leader of the opposition Meretz Party, blasted the Sharon government and called for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Attendance at the rally was hardly massive, compared to the size of peace rallies in the past. Still, it was the largest anti-government rally since the Palestinian intifada began 17 months ago.

Sharon said recently that Israel will win this “war” with the Palestinians — if Israelis remain steadfast.

Yet intelligence officials say cracks in Israeli morale — such as the recent letter from some 200 reserve soldiers and officers who refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — are emboldening Arafat to escalate the intifada. More Israeli casualties, Arafat believes, will quicken the growth of dissent and ultimately force the Israeli government to accede to Palestinian demands.

In fact, the day after the peace rally, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz disclosed that the Council for Peace and Security, a prominent center-left group of retired army generals and Mossad and Shin Bet officers, had endorsed the concept of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.

The Council now advocates a pullback from all of Gaza — save the borderline with Egypt — and much of the West Bank. The plan would involve dismantling some 50 settlements.

Yet such unilateralism is spurned by the hard-core left — the school of Peres and former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin — as a counsel of despair, because it is predicated on the conclusion that efforts to reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians presently are hopeless. Others fear that withdrawing unilaterally will give the Palestinians less incentive to negotiate.

The left and center, therefore, continue to be as fragmented and disoriented as the right — which only exacerbates the mood of hopelessness sweeping the country.

Dankner ended his article as powerfully and plaintively as it began: “If there is a policy,” he wrote, “military or politics, strategic or tactical — let it appear at once.”

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