Figuring Out Sharon

Talk about confusing.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may have a strategy, but in a week that has seen dizzying numbers of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, many are left scratching their heads trying to figure out what Sharon is up to.

His government is an uneasy coalition of left and right voicing their competing demands, and his seemingly contradictory words and actions reflect some of those competing forces. Moreover, Sharon has to be alert to international reaction — particularly what emanates from Washington, where officials are concerned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could hamper efforts to build a strong coalition for the global war on terror.

Put all these pressures together and you may get a glimpse into why Sharon bobs and weaves like a consummate politician-prizefighter. Last week, for example, Sharon announced that pummeling the Palestinians militarily is the only way to bring them back to the negotiating table. He accompanied the words with a massive anti-terror operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

These developments elicited a statement of concern from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wondered before a congressional committee last week whether Sharon’s policy would "lead us anywhere." The next day, President Bush announced that he was sending his Middle East envoy, Anthony Zinni, back to the region this week.

A day after that, Sharon made the first of two stunning about-faces: He announced over the weekend that he would no longer demand seven days of calm before launching cease-fire talks with the Palestinians.

Dismissing an outcry from his right flank that he was reversing his long-standing policy of not negotiating under fire, Sharon said he was acting out of national responsibility — and from the realization that seven days of quiet are currently unachievable. On Sunday, the second shoe dropped when Sharon said he was willing to release Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who has been under virtual house arrest since December.

Political observers viewed the two concessions as an attempt by Sharon to smooth the way for a resumption of diplomacy. But just as suddenly, Sharon authorized the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to step up its operations this week in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. Military officials said the IDF captured dozens of "hardcore terrorists" in the operations, which also netted untold amounts of weapons and explosives.

The international community, however, noticed something else: the steadily mounting number of Palestinian casualties.

Last Friday alone, more than 30 Palestinians were killed during Israeli raids on villages and refugee camps. On Monday, at least 12 Palestinians were killed during an IDF operation in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. On Tuesday, that toll increased after the IDF launched a major operation in Ramallah, where 32 Palestinians were reported killed and scores wounded. On Wednesday, an Israeli soldier, 21-year-old Lt. Gil Badihi, died of injuries sustained in a gun battle near Ramallah.

So which is it? Sharon the peacemaker who wants a cease-fire, or Sharon the general who wants another military victory? In a move that reflects the pressures Sharon has faced from within his coalition, two Israeli Cabinet ministers submitted their resignations on Tuesday because of Sharon’s decision o free Arafat. As far as they were concerned — based on the two concessions Sharon had made over the weekend — Sharon had gone soft on the Palestinians.

The resignations, which were to go into effect later in the week, mean Sharon will now have to rely on the support of the Labor Party and the fervently Orthodox Shas Party to stay in power until the next round of elections are held late next year.

For its part, the Labor Party has been debating whether Sharon had gone too far in his military reprisals against the Palestinians.

But last week, the party’s leader, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, got party members to agree not to leave the government during this period of national emergency.

While many can only guess what Sharon’s strategy truly is, all would agree that the country is in a state of emergency.