Yasser Arafat is floundering. Six months into the new intifada, he has achieved nothing for his people. More and more openly, Palestinians are questioning whether their suffering is worthwhile. The world is in no hurry to intervene. Arab leaders, gathered in Jordan this week, were long on sympathy, short on substance, military or financial.
Ariel Sharon, for his part, is striving to reconcile his twin images of "Mr. Security" and "Mr. Pragmatic Leader" who has put his adventurist past behind him and cherishes his rapport with the new man in the White House. The Palestinians are not making it easy for him.
The intifada is all tactics and no strategy. Marwan Barghouti, the mainstream Fatah commander calling the shots on the West Bank, announced one day that he wanted a popular uprising with the masses taking to the streets in peaceful protest, then declared the next day that the armed confrontation would continue.
The bombers and the gunmen interpreted this as a license to go on targeting Jews. Israeli commentators suspected Arafat was trying to provoke the hawkish prime minister to order drastic reprisals, which would rally support for the Palestinian cause — at the Amman summit and among Israeli Arabs, who are staging their annual "Land Day" demonstrations this Friday.
The attacks plumbed new depths In Hebron on Monday, when a Palestinian sniper shot dead a 10-month-old baby, Shalhevet Pass, as she was being wheeled by her parents through the West Bank city’s Jewish neighborhood. The same night, a police disposal crew defused a bomb placed outside a falafel bar in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv. On Tuesday, a car bomb went off in Jerusalem’s Talpiot shopping district. Then a suicide bomber struck at a bus stop across town near the Jewish suburb of French Hill. A total of 35 were hurt in the two operations.
Wednesday dawned with another atrocity, this time on the Israeli side of the border between Kfar Sava and the West Bank town of Qalqilya. A second suicide bomber blew himself up among a bunch of teenage boys waiting outside the "Mifgash Hashalom" ("Meeting Place of Peace") gas station for a ride to a West Bank yeshiva. Two of the students were killed on the spot, four others were wounded. One was in critical condition, another required extensive eye surgery. Both were riddled with iron nails that had been packed into the bomb strapped to the terrorist’s chest. The Islamic nationalist movement, Hamas, acknowledged responsibility for both suicide raids and announced that it had seven more bombers ready to sacrifice themselves.
Sharon, projecting a new, statesmanlike image, was reluctant to be provoked. The last thing he wanted was to revive memories of Arik Sharon, the 1950s special forces commander who killed Palestinian civilians wholesale in reprisal raids, or the defense minister who allowed Lebanese Christian militiamen to massacre refugees in Sabra and Shatilla three decades later.
Having promised his voters to restore their sense of security, however, Sharon could not wait too long. In particular, his own nationalist constituency was losing patience. Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-right infrastructure minister, said: "The state must provide security for its citizens everywhere, and Israel must act with determination against the terrorism which is afflicting us." Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, said of the baby girl’s killers: "We have to annihilate these monsters." Shalhavet’s young parents refused to bury her until the army retook the hillside from which the sniper fired.
Alex Fishman, a sober military analyst, wrote in Yediot Aharonot on Tuesday: "It is true that revenge is no substitute for policy. Decisions on the national level must not be made with the gut. But it is inconceivable that the murder of a baby in cold blood be left hanging in the air with no response. A murder like this must have a price."
Whatever that price turns out to be, the violence is cutting the ground from under Sharon’s quest for a "long-term interim agreement." Arafat could not swallow the permanent solution to the conflict offered by the former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, at Camp David last summer. But nor, it seems, can he contemplate anything less.
Sharon will not be able to play the benign grandfather much longer, but a more vigorous response will risk straining the alliance with Labor’s Shimon Peres and thus the stability of a his national-unity coalition. Nor will he have the free hand he enjoyed when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, unleashed him on retaliation raids against Arab villagers half a century ago. CNN’s cameras will be there before him.
With bombings turning into a daily ordeal, Sharon was forced on Wednesday to abandon his "business as usual" pose. His aides announced immediately after the Kfar Sava suicide attack that he would not call the inner security cabinet into session. The prime minister’s declared policy was to convene it only once every two weeks. Before the morning was out, however, Sharon backtracked. His ministers insisted that they had to be heard. It was too much of an emergency to be left to one man.
Whle the ministers were still talking, Israeli helicopter gunships rocketed Gaza and the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday night. A military spokesman said they hit specific targets. Sharon had preferred pinpoint blows, for which read assassinations, against the men behind the bombers, picking them off one-by-one over a period of weeks. But he clearly felt something more dramatic was called for. It remains to be seen whether Israelis will be reassured, or the terrorists will be deterred.
Arafat’s tactics are making Sharon squirm, but they solve nothing for the Palestinians. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s Labor defense minister, began lifting the economic siege. He was repaid with bombs, mortars and sniper fire. The roadblocks will have to stay. There will be no early relief for the one million Palestinians living below the poverty line. There will be no jobs, in Israel or the Palestinian territories, for the 250,000 unemployed.
Despite Arafat’s claim that he is still pursuing the "peace of the brave," the Amman summit did nothing to convince Israelis or comfort hungry Palestinians. While the United States vetoed a United Nations resolution in New York calling for an international force to "protect" Palestinian civilians, Bashar Assad, Syria’s supposedly westernized young president, sounded no different from his brutal father. He denounced Israel as a society "more racist than the Nazis." Ze’ev, Ha’aretz’s veteran cartoonist, summed it up with the image of the week: a beaming Arafat launching a verbal dove of peace polka-dotted with black bombs.