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Embattled Sharon vows new direction
Stephen Franklin . Chicago Tribune . 21 february 2002

JERUSALEM -- Responding to a series of deadly attacks on Israeli soldiers that have shocked his army and his people, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday that Israel would take "a different course of action" to combat a Palestinian uprising that shows no sign of abating.

But the former army general, who came to power a year ago promising to make the Jewish state a place to live in peace, has lost the confidence of many Israelis.

He is under increasing pressure from the right and left to make a break from his current policies.

Palestinian militants, who in recent days have spoken of waging more frequent and more unified attacks, see an opportunity to break Israel's resolve regarding what they label its occupation of Arab lands.

They have increased attacks on Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an attempt to raise the costs of the Israeli presence there.

From the political right, Sharon is accused of lacking the will to wage an all-out war on the Palestinians. From the left, he is charged with escalating tensions through the assassinations of Palestinian militants and other military and security measures.

Many analysts contend Sharon is operating in a fog and Israel is wandering dangerously behind him.

"Sharon is navigating without a plan," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote this week in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, echoing a widely repeated theme. "He lives from day to day, from attack to attack, from retaliation to retaliation. He should not be surprised that the people who followed him with their eyes shut are starting to open their eyes."

A recent poll by the daily newspaper Maariv said 49 percent of Israelis think their leaders have lost control of the security situation. Two-thirds think Israel needs to put up a fence between itself and the Palestinians, Maariv reported.

Sharon's promise of "a different course" came after a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, as Israelis mourned six soldiers killed Tuesday in the West Bank and four Israelis who died Monday.

Army takes action

The Israeli military, meanwhile, responded in its own way to the attacks on the soldiers, firing missiles, tank shells and machine guns at Palestinian Authority facilities Wednesday in a series of attacks that left more than a dozen Palestinians dead. Israeli forces moved into Gaza City on Thursday, destroying the Voice of Palestine radio and television headquarters as warships struck the northern and southern Gaza Strip.

While Sharon did not offer details about Israel's next steps, spokesman Raanan Gissin said the strategy would be the same as before, "but we will have to intensify it so as to become more effective."

If Israel were to go to war with the Palestinians, Gissin added, there would be "hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties."

"We will not hurt [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat, and we will not hurt local residents," Gissin said. "But those who are involved in terror activities will have trouble sleeping."

The army's major focus, he said, would be to conduct more commando raids.

The army lately has been entering Palestinian-controlled areas and staying there for days to search for suspected attackers and weapons.

Focus on Arafat

Sharon's strategy, government officials said, is to keep the pressure on Arafat. That way, they said, the Palestinian Authority chairman will either be forced to crack down on Palestinian militants or the violence will escalate and Sharon will be able to justify his hard line to the international community.

As the head of a coalition government, Sharon is hesitant to take dramatic action that might cause his left- or right-wing allies to pull out of the coalition. But he is under great pressure from Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who want Sharon to step up the army's role in the territories.

At the same time, Sharon is reluctant to take any major actions against the Palestinians before next month's visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

Criticism from the right, including from members of Sharon's own Likud Party, is more severe than at any time during the nearly 17-month Palestinian uprising. Likud members have pronounced his year-old government a dismal failure and have urged him to launch a war to destroy the Palestinian Authority.

Hatzofe, the newspaper of the religious right that once lionized Sharon, suggested Wednesday that the prime minister is failing to declare war on the Palestinians because he is still traumatized by his role as the architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

He was forced to resign as defense minister after he was held indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinian refugees.

"It is inconceivable that Israel should pay this price of blood without a fitting, very painful response, just because the prime minister emerged wounded from ... the Lebanon war," the newspaper wrote in an unsigned editorial. "It seems likely that the good of the country demands that he give up his post because he is psychologically limited and unable to do what needs to be done."

"What we need now is a wider military action," said Uli Edelstein, a member of the Israeli parliament, on Wednesday. "What we have done up until now has been a lot of fireworks."