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Sad, But Not Surprising

No one familiar with the Middle East will be surprised by the spectacular wave of violence that erupted in Israel and the territories this week, while the applause was still echoing from last week’s peace summits in Aqaba and Sharm al-Sheikh.

Deeply saddened, yes, but not surprised. Hamas, we knew, would strike sooner or later. And Israel almost always strikes back. This week, everyone played according to script.

By midweek the mad rush of tit-for-tat attacks — a terrorist raid on an Israeli army post, a helicopter raid on a Hamas leader, a Jerusalem bus bombing, a jet attack on Gaza militants and more — had left no fewer than 35 people killed, including combatants as well as bystanders and children on both sides. The toll in human life was numbing. The virtual snuffing-out of the frail flicker of hope raised by President Bush’s peace initiative, which supporters hoped just might end the 32-month terror war, seemed all but unbearable.

It all seemed so predictable. But it was not inevitable.

Nobody thought the Islamic extremists who oppose Israel’s very existence would go along quietly as the Palestinian Authority entered a new series of agreements with the Jewish state. Hamas and its allies were going to strike out. The main uncertainty was when.

But there was another uncertainty this time: how Israel would respond. Israel traditionally responds to terrorism with firm counter-blows, both to signal determination and to impose a price on the other side. During the last two and a half years, these retaliations have won considerable understanding in Washington and other Western capitals. And in recent months they have yielded results, including a decline in terrorist attacks and a change in Palestinian leadership.

Now, however, Prime Minister Sharon was expected to shift gears. He had said over and over that he was committed to a renewal of diplomacy. The new Palestinian leadership was insisting high and low that moving forward would require an easing of Israeli pressure. Sharon had sent clear signals that he was listening. In Aqaba he reportedly agreed to avoid actions that might “inflame” the situation and weaken the rookie Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, it’s true, was sending mixed signals about what sort of respite he needed. He was trying to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas, which some Palestinians said was intended as their answer to ending terrorism, and others said was meant merely to give Abbas time to build strength for a showdown with the radicals. Israel, for its part, sent equally mixed signals: Some leaders insisted only a full-scale attack on Hamas would do, while others signaled that a cease-fire would be an acceptable first step. Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, seemed to be preparing the ground for the cease-fire idea when he told American Jewish community leaders in a telephone briefing last week that Israel and its allies had to be prepared to absorb a “tolerable” level of violence.

Sharon had several options, then, for responding to Sunday’s raid on the Gaza army post. He could have given Abbas more time. Instead he chose a helicopter attack on the No. 2 man in Hamas. It wasn’t the only response possible, but it may have been the most destructive. It missed the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, but like similar raids before it left Palestinian civilians dead. And it reignited the terrorism it was meant to quell.

Israel quickly responded to critics by noting that Rantisi was a “factory of ticking time bombs” who was deeply involved in planning attacks, past and future. Officials around the prime minister insisted Israel needed to act after the killing of its soldiers, arguing that Abbas’s leadership was too weak to confront Hamas. Cynics suggested that the prime minister needed a showy act to shore up his sagging right flank.

There were darker explanations circulating, too. Some Israeli critics, and not just on the left, noted the uncomfortable coincidence of fledgling peace initiatives repeatedly cut short after an attack on a suspected terrorist spurred new waves of Palestinian violence. The conservative daily Ma’ariv cataloged three of the most discussed cases in a graphic photo-and-text display this week. One was the January 2002 assassination of Ra’ed Karmi, a Tanzim leader in Tulkarm, which led to a bloody wave of attacks that ended a three-week cease-fire imposed by Arafat. Another was the July 2002 assassination of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, which torpedoed Egyptian-led cease-fire talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The third was the March 2003 assassination of Hamas leader Ibrahim Makadmeh, two hours before the convening of a Palestinian gathering where Abbas was to be crowned leader.

Few responsible Israelis on the left or right were suggesting this week, as Palestinian leaders charged, that Israel deliberately timed its attacks to destroy openings to peace. The assassinations have been a regular feature of Israeli security policy under Sharon, regardless of the diplomatic calendar. Few denied they had an impact on reducing terrorist capabilities. Almost no one denied the targets deserved what they got.

No, the question this week was whether Israel under Sharon is capable of taking a longer view and seizing an opportunity when it presents itself, or whether it is doomed to remain a prisoner of its own military doctrines even after it’s clear they do more damage than good.

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