Escalation, Redux

The killings came so fast that Israel’s online newspapers couldn’t keep up. This week’s surge of Mideast violence and hints of a new level of sophistication by Palestinian terrorists have once again forced Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to reconsider his government’s strategy in what looks more and more like a war of attrition.

The explosion of violence included Tuesday’s attack on an Israeli Defense Force checkpoint outside Ramallah that left six Israeli soldiers dead and new rocket attacks inside the Green Line.

Facing mounting political pressure from both right and left, Sharon on Wednesday ordered intensified retaliatory strikes against Palestinian Authority targets, including heavy bomb and rocket attacks against Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza and Ramallah, but once again stopped short of directly targeting the Palestinian leader.

In Washington, there were rumbles of concern about the dramatic rise in violence, but no indication that the Bush administration is getting ready to step up its own involvement — or pressure Sharon to ease up on the Palestinians despite a spiraling pattern of tit-for-tat attacks.

Some analysts predict the administration will not object too strenuously if Israel tightens the restrictions on Arafat still further, possibly preventing any contact with outsiders or even forcing him into exile.

"The level of frustration with Arafat is enormous," said a longtime pro-Israel analyst in Washington. "The administration doesn’t advocate direct action against him, but there are some in the administration who wouldn’t weep if Sharon went ahead and put him on the target list."

But other important officials argue that any direct attack on the Palestinian leader would quickly end Sharon’s extended honeymoon with Washington — especially since the White House explicitly told him not to harm Arafat.

Any Israeli attack on Arafat, they say, would make it all but impossible for Washington to block calls for international peacekeepers in the region and an expanded role for the Europeans.

This week’s violence was among the bloodiest since the start of the new Palestinian intifada 17 months ago. It included a series of suicide bombings that left several Israelis dead, intense new Israeli retaliatory strikes that have resulted in a rising Palestinian death toll and Tuesday’s well-executed raid by Palestinian gunmen at an army checkpoint near Ramallah.

There were also shootings in Gilo and Hebron, and Palestinians fired at least four Kassam missiles across the Green Line.

The State Department has labeled the Palestinian deployment of the new rockets "a provocative escalation," and the Israeli government has warned that continued use of the weapons would provoke harsher retaliation against Palestinian targets.

Israeli right wingers responded to the new violence by intensifying their demands for harsh new military action; former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expected to challenge Sharon for the premiership, this week called for Arafat’s removal as a precondition for new peace negotiations.

Sharon also faced growing pressure from the other side of the political spectrum as a group of senior reserve officers called for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and most of the West Bank.

Despite the mounting crisis, U.S. officials do not plan any new peace initiatives, and there are no efforts underway to change recent policy that has given Sharon a relatively free hand in dealing with Palestinian violence.

Asked about the crisis on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher repeated what has become a mantra for U.S. officials — that "the crucial first step remains for Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to make every effort to arrest terrorists and to dismantle the terrorist organizations that continue to carry out attacks against Israel."

Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now president of the Middle East Institute, said that at least for now, the administration green light to Sharon is unlikely to turn red.

"The administration’s policy remains the same: you can’t ask Israel to make concessions under the threat of terror," Walker said. "The administration will remain solidly behind that position."

U.S. officials believe that other political factors — including his desire to keep Labor in his unity government — will keep Sharon from overreacting.

"The problem is that if he goes too far on the military side and tries to reoccupy parts of the West Bank and Gaza — which would be the next step — he may lose his coalition," Walker said. "The minute [Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres walks, Netanyahu is in with a narrow Likud government. I don’t believe Sharon will go that far. He has to play this very carefully; the last thing he wants is to open the door to Netanyahu."

The administration, sources in Washington say, believe that those political realities will keep Sharon from trying to remove Arafat from the scene or reoccupy land.

But even if Sharon dramatically escalates the military pressure, the administration may not rescind the green light it has flashed for the Israeli leader.

"Sharon’s instinct after this week will be to crack down hard," said Robert O. Freedman, a leading Mideast analyst and longtime peace process supporter. "We may see them begin to attack in Ramallah; he may decide to take Arafat out."

Sharon came to office promising security in a year, Freedman said, "but didn’t produce it. Now he may be coming close to the decision that the current policy isn’t working. He won’t accept unilateral withdrawal, so he will move inexorably toward a direct assault on the [Palestinian Authority] — even if that takes out Arafat."

Freedman said that Sharon may be ready to accept a period of chaos as Palestinian leaders vie to replace Arafat.

Bush administration officials will never openly approve of that kind of assault, he said — but given their frustration with Arafat, they may not work hard to restrain Sharon. In fact, Freedman said, there may be advantages to quick action by Sharon.

"Most people believe a [U.S.] move against Iraq is three or four months away," he said. "While the administration would prefer quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian front, they may assume [a direct assault on Arafat] is inevitable. So they may prefer Sharon do it sooner rather than later."

But other analysts say that despite the despair over Arafat’s unwillingness to curb the terrorists and the mounting pressure from the right, Sharon still may not be ready to remove him from the scene.

"Frankly, Arafat is still more valuable to Sharon alive and kicking than dead," said former Ambassador Edward Walker. "Arafat has managed to totally alienate this administration in ways that have made it very easy for Sharon."

This week the administration reacted cautiously to hints of a new peace play by Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Crown Prince Abdullah said that he had considered making a speech calling for normalizing Arab ties with the Jewish state if Israel would return to its 1967 borders. But the prince said he decided not to give the speech because of what he called Sharon’s "oppression" of the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the Saudi proposal, but Israeli officials dismissed it as vague.

On Monday, Boucher called the proposal a "significant and positive step." But he added that the administration has few details about the plan — and that any new plan is "subject to negotiation by the parties."