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Under Attack for Gaza Foray, Sharon Dodges a Legal Bullet

TEL AVIV — Ariel Sharon was seen smiling broadly Tuesday for the first time in months, and few doubted the reason: the unconfirmed report, broadcast the day before on Israel Television, that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz had decided not to indict the prime minister on bribery charges in the so-called Greek Island affair.

It was only a rumor, promptly denied by officials close to the attorney general. Mazuz is expected to announce his decision only in mid-June. Even if no indictment is issued then, investigations of the prime minister are continuing in at least two other scandals that could lead to charges in the months ahead. Sharon is not out of the woods.

Nonetheless, it was the first good news that Sharon had received in weeks, and it suggested that he had won a few more months to sort out his other problems and find a way of fending off the growing numbers of foes nipping at his heels. He is still smarting from the defeat of his disengagement plan in the May 2 Likud referendum, and his newest proposal is winning poor reviews. His army is under furious attack, not just abroad but even at home, for its tactics in Gaza. The legal rumors must have sounded comforting, indeed.

Last Tuesday, Israeli troops finalized their withdrawal from the southern Gaza city of Rafah after the army command declared that the objectives of the weeklong Operation Rainbow in a Cloud had been met. Many Israelis remained skeptical, since the objectives had never been defined clearly in the first place. Rainbow in a Cloud represented the first military operation since the outbreak of the Intifada that drew wide criticism not only from left-wing politicians and the press, but also from inside Sharon’s government.

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid voiced the criticism forcefully in a Cabinet meeting last Sunday, while operations were still under way. A Yugoslavian-born Holocaust survivor who frequently alludes to his childhood experience under the Nazis, Lapid claimed that news photos of an elderly Palestinian woman searching on hands and knees through the ruins of her Rafah home, destroyed by the Israeli army days earlier, “reminded me of my grandmother.” His comment touched off furious criticism from other ministers, prompting him to insist he was “not referring to the Holocaust” but merely highlighting the woman’s frailty. Nonetheless, Lapid insisted, Israel’s demolition of houses in Rafah “must stop. It is not humane, not Jewish and causes us grave damage in the world.… At the end of the day, they’ll kick us out of the United Nations, try those responsible in the international court in The Hague, and no one will want to speak with us.”

Lapid, a former journalist and a skillful reader of public opinion, hardly would have spoken so bluntly were he not certain that the Israeli public shared his discomfort with the Rafah operation. The scenes of destruction and killings of unarmed civilians appeared to touch a nerve with the Israeli public, which had been primed by Sharon to expect a departure from Gaza — not a re-entry to a place where the prime minister has said Israel has no long-term interests to protect.

Reactions were magnified by doubts about the operation’s actual purpose. In repeated statements, government and army spokesmen said the main objective was to expose and destroy underground tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle arms into Gaza from Egypt. In fact, however, the troops were operating in the northern neighborhoods of Rafah, those farthest from the Egyptian border. The army claimed that it exposed two tunnel shafts, but few saw that as sufficient to justify the toll in civilian lives — including a 3-year-old girl and eight demonstrators killed by a tank shell — and the large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes. Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, the commander of the operation, claimed that 56 buildings were torn down; international human rights groups cited far higher numbers, but a report from the United Nations indicated that only 45 buildings had been destroyed.

In private conversations, senior officers acknowledged that Operation Rainbow in a Cloud was not aimed primarily at closing tunnels, but rather at giving the army back its deterrent power following the losses it suffered the week before, in three incidents that left 13 soldiers dead. Some military analysts said the operation’s actual motivation — taking back the initiative from Palestinian terrorist groups — amounted to little more than revenge. Coming against the backdrop of the political stalemate over Sharon’s disengagement plan, the operation was viewed as the latest in a series of instances of the army improvising in the absence of clear direction from the top, and using tactics that even right-wing politicians found hard to accept.

Weakened diplomatically as well as politically by the Rafah furor, Sharon was working hard this week to regain ground by resuscitating his disengagement initiative. Hoping to win over waverers in his deadlocked Cabinet, Sharon now proposes to implement his unilateral withdrawal in four stages, obtaining broad ministerial approval for the overall plan and then bringing each stage to a separate Cabinet vote. The new approach would extend the timetable for implementation into late 2005 and perhaps beyond. The first phase of the plan — withdrawal from the isolated Gaza settlements of Nezarim, Kfar Darom and Morag — reportedly will be brought to the Cabinet this coming Sunday. Subsequent phases would include withdrawals from four settlements in the northern West Bank, the Katif bloc in southern Gaza and finally from three settlements in northern Gaza.

The new plan has gotten a lukewarm reception at best in the press, where it is seen as offering none of the advantages of the original plan — a clean break, leading to a defensible new border — and all the disadvantages. Opposition is said to be particularly fierce in the senior ranks of the army, where the plan is seen as leaving the troops in limbo, forced to defend an ever-changing front line with no clear goals in the short or long term. Retired Major General Amos Gilad, now the Defense Ministry’s top strategist, reportedly expressed opposition to the plan this week in a meeting between Sharon and the defense brass, telling the prime minister that withdrawing in four stages would give the terrorists four separate opportunities to rebuild their momentum. Sharon allegedly dismissed the objections and told the generals that their job was to implement his plans, not critique them.

More seriously, Sharon still faces opposition from three of his most influential Cabinet ministers, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat. And the Bush administration has not indicated whether it will support the phased approach.

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