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Terror Attacks Said To Wound Sharon’s Image

JERUSALEM — A new wave of terrorist attacks has plunged Israel back to the bloodiest days of the Palestinian intifada and dashed fledgling hopes for an early resumption of the peace process.

The renewed outbreak of violence may also have damaged Prime Minister Sharon’s public stature, after two and a half years of unprecedented popularity. Sharon appeared this week to be uncharacteristically at a loss for comforting words and devoid of good options. “The prime minister seems to have run out of gas,” one Cabinet minister said privately.

The ferocious series of suicide bombings unleashed by Palestinian terrorist groups, chiefly Hamas, came as a shock to the Israeli government and military no less than the public. After a lengthy period of relative calm, the deadly new attacks seemed to undermine previous army claims of impending “victory” in the war on terrorism. At the same time, they deflated expectations that the new Palestinian cabinet, headed by Abu Mazen, would be able to turn the tide in the fight against the terrorists.

Lacking any groundbreaking new proposals, the army quickly reimposed complete closures and curfews on the West Bank, and right-wing Cabinet ministers enthusiastically revived calls to expel Yasser Arafat from the territories. Privately, however, several despondent ministers admitted that both they and the military had “run out of ideas” and that the public campaign against Arafat was no more than a “diversion” meant to obscure a growing sense of futility at the top.

Indeed, the chief of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze’evi, in essence concurred with the urgent message conveyed by Abu Mazen himself to British and American diplomats, that Israeli “incitement” against Arafat was only serving to strengthen the hand of the chairman in the eyes of the Palestinian public, and thus to weaken Abu Mazen’s already precarious position.

Sharon, visibly shaken by the reemergence of an intensive Palestinian campaign of terrorism, was criticized by his own Cabinet ministers for having postponed his scheduled meeting with President Bush, originally slated to take place last Tuesday at the White House. Sharon said that he would go to Washington “in the near future” to discuss Bush’s “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, and also pledged to continue his dialogue with Abu Mazen. But his advisers conceded that the prime minister was “close to giving up” hope for a meaningful diplomatic process anytime in the near future. “The road map,” said one adviser “is already stillborn.”

Critics of Sharon said that by delaying his meeting with Bush, the prime minister was “playing into the hands of the terrorists,” whose primary aim was to scuttle the peace process. But Sharon may also have miscalculated politically. A summit with Bush this week would have diverted public attention away from the government’s obvious failure to stem terrorism, despite the drastic measures taken by the army during the last several months. A hastily convened Cabinet meeting several hours after the bus bombing in Jerusalem, in which seven people were killed, was described by participants as “an exercise in futility.” A former national security adviser, reserve Major General Uzi Dayan, labeled the Cabinet deliberations “pathetic.”

“If the government has a policy, then it doesn’t need yet another Cabinet debate, ” Dayan said. “And if it does not have a policy, then one more Cabinet meeting won’t help.”

Sharon also came under fire from the right, which called for the complete dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, and was roundly criticized in many other quarters for having failed to expedite the construction of the widely popular “separation fence,” despite two and a half years of relentless terrorism. “If ‘Sharon the Bulldozer’ had truly wanted the fence, it would have been built a long time ago,” said one Cabinet minister.

In an effort to contain the political fallout, Sharon’s advisers were frantically trying at week’s end to reschedule the prime minister’s canceled trip to Washington. “We thought the public would criticize Sharon for leaving the country during such a difficult time, but it turns out that such times have passed,” one Sharon aide told the Forward. “The public wants to believe the prime minister is doing something to change the situation, and a meeting with Bush would have served exactly that purpose.”

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said in the Cabinet meeting that Sharon had missed a “golden opportunity” to “catch Bush on the defensive” and to equate the Islamic terrorism against Israel with the renewed Al Qaeda attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. “Sharon could have pressed the point that ‘your war is our war,’” said one minister, “but by the time he gets to Washington, he may find that the focus has returned to the uncomfortable issues of settlements and ‘illegal’ outposts.”

Some politicians and Cabinet ministers tried linking the new wave of Hamas terrorism to the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca, describing them as a new onslaught of “international Islamic terrorism.” Military officers, however, discounted claims of an actual connection between Palestinians in the territories and the Al Qaeda network, saying that, at most, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were “drawing inspiration” from the violent attacks of Osama bin Laden’s supporters throughout the Middle East.

Israeli military analysts said that the renewed wave of radical Islamic terrorism was aimed not only at erasing any glimmer of hope for renewed diplomacy, but also at crippling Abu Mazen’s newly installed Cabinet from the outset. The analysts expressed concern that Abu Mazen’s regime, already suffering from lack of widespread public support, might soon capsize altogether.

Sharon’s first formal meeting earlier this week in Jerusalem with Abu Mazen, originally billed as “a historic breakthrough,” ended in almost complete disagreement, according to sources on both sides. Abu Mazen rejected Sharon’s offer that Palestinians “take control” of northern Gaza as a preliminary step toward resuming complete security control of Palestinian areas, insisting that Israel must first withdraw from Palestinian towns, formally endorse the road map and pledge to refrain from preemptive eliminations of suspected terrorists. Sharon, for his part, told Abu Mazen that he must first prove his willingness and ability to fight terrorism before Israel would consider any further concessions.

Nonetheless, in an effort to strengthen Abu Mazen’s legitimacy, Sharon and the military dropped their opposition to a so-called hudna, or cease-fire, between the P.A. and the terrorist groups. Israel’s previous position was that a hudna would be utilized by the terrorist groups to reorganize and rearm themselves. Now, however, security authorities increasingly believe such a “timeout” is critical for Abu Mazen to consolidate his hold on the Palestinian security services and to attempt to outflank Arafat, who is continuously trying to undermine the new prime minister’s authority.

Military intelligence officers acknowledged this week that in addition to the operational failure of the security services to prevent the new terrorist attacks, the security services were shocked by the obvious failure of the intelligence services to uncover or even detect the terrorist cells that carried out the recent attacks. The terrorists who carried out the suicide attacks in Hebron and Jerusalem early this week belonged to a secret Hamas cell in Hebron, an area the army had thought to be “terrorist-free.”

“It’s back to the drawing boards for us,” said one disappointed army officer, adding that the army chronically underestimates the Palestinians’ ability to produce new suicide bombers as replacements for those killed either by themselves or in military “liquidation” campaigns. “It’s an unbreakable, vicious circle,” the officer added, “because we have to take tough measures against the terrorists, but these tough measures only breed yet another wave of would-be suicide bombers.”

Indeed, this week’s spate of bombings may have shocked Israel to the point where it needs to rethink the basic premises that have underpinned the government’s policies since Sharon took office more than two years ago. It is too early to tell, however, whether such a reassessment might lead Israel to dismantle whatever is left of the P.A. and to restore full military occupation to the territories, or whether it may lead, contrary to current expectations, to a renewed effort to find a diplomatic and political way out of the morass.

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