Sharon’s Fine Line

As Palestinian terrorism takes an ever-increasing toll, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seeking to walk a fine line: taking tougher measures to deter terrorists without escalating the situation further.

The volume of terror continues apace — 13 people died and more than 80 were wounded in a series of attacks on Sunday alone — despite the fact that the army has been in West Bank cities for seven weeks, keeping nearly 2 million Palestinians under curfew.

Figures released this week show that more than 600 Israelis, most of them civilians, have been killed since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, and more than 4,000 have been wounded.

Even as both sides discussed a plan for troop withdrawal from some areas of the West Bank and Gaza, right-wing critics now are demanding harsher action against Palestinian leaders and the Palestinian population as a whole. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the National Union-Israel, Our Home bloc in the Knesset, says the army should have no compunction about targeting political leaders like Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat or Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who he says are behind the terrorism.

"They don’t send their children to be [suicide bombers], Lieberman said in an early August radio interview. "They send their children overseas. And if they knew their own lives were in danger, the terror would stop."

But Sharon is showing no sign of responding to the right-wing demands. On the contrary, he continues to distinguish between the Palestinian population, whose suffering he says he wants to ease, and the terrorist organizations. Sharon’s aides say the prime minister hopes to drive a wedge between the overwhelming majority of the civilian population and the terrorists — a strategy that so far has been singularly unsuccessful. Opinion polls show that the Palestinian public overwhelmingly supports suicide bombings, despite the harsh Israeli countermeasures they provoke.

Sharon also has another reason for rejecting the right-wing pressure: He does not want to jeopardize major political gains, like strong U.S. support for Israel, and international pressure on the Palestinians to replace Arafat and reform the Palestinian Authority’s political, financial and military institutions.

Still, the pressure from the right, and the new tone in the public debate, raises the fundamental question of how far a democracy can or must go to defend its citizens. Are actions permissible in a state of war that would not be acceptable in peacetime?

In other words, can a democracy win the war against terror while maintaining the full gamut of democratic values? And if not, just how much can it reasonably suspend?

In July, the government sought to deter would-be suicide bombers by making it clear that their close relatives would suffer for their actions: houses would be demolished and families expelled from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. On Sunday alone, for example, the government destroyed nine homes.

Israeli human rights organizations were sharply critical of the new policy, arguing that it violated a cardinal principle of jurisprudence: that only the guilty can be punished for their actions. In early August, the Ma’ariv newspaper sprang to the government’s defense. Reflecting a hardening mood in Israel, it wrote: "It is high time people realized that we are within our rights to try various methods of punishment and deterrence to reduce the volume of the vicious and murderous terrorism we are facing. There is nothing immoral about this, and those who claim that there is are indulging in attempts to be ‘holier than the pope.’ In order to save lives we are proposing not to kill anyone, perish the thought, not to torture or imprison the relatives of the terrorists, but to transfer them from one place of residence to another."

Ma’ariv also predicted that the terror would continue despite the new measures, and that soon Israelis would "reach a moral crossroads where we will face far more difficult choices."

Within days, the moral spotlight had turned from the Palestinians to Israeli Arabs, after Arabs in the Galilee were suspected of aiding a suicide bomber who blew up a bus on road to Safed, killing nine people and wounding more than 40.

Police Chief Shlomo Aharonishky called for a thorough investigation of the connection between Israeli Arabs and terror. In a controversial deterrent move, Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced that he was revoking the citizenship of two Israeli Arabs accused of aiding terrorists. Cabinet ministers from the Labor Party challenged the move. While they agreed that Israel must clamp down on terror wherever it can, they warned that they would only support measures approved by law.

That suggests that the Israeli Supreme Court will have a lot to say over the next few months on whether proposed punitive and deterrent measures are compatible with fundamental human rights.

In the meantime, grass-roots pressure for more radical action could grow. Boaz Ganor, a counterterrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, argues that a democratic country’s greatest commitment is to protect the lives of its citizens, and that it is only natural for those citizens to demand that the government take radical measures.

This, he says, leads to what he calls the "democratic paradox" in fighting terror: If a government fails to adopt radical measures it will be voted out of office; but if it does, it undermines liberal democratic values and begins to look like the terrorists want it to, illegitimate and undemocratic.

"A responsible government must find the golden mean," Ganor says, adding that, in his view, Sharon is succeeding in this. "There are aberrations here and there, but on the whole I think he deserves high marks," Ganor asserts.

The bottom line is that despite the pressure for harsher actions, neither Sharon nor his generals want to escalate the situation. In late July, the Israel Defense Forces presented its latest working plan to Sharon. It is based on the assumption that the next six months will see Arafat’s decline as a decisionmaker and an American strike against Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

These two events, the generals believe, will the tip the terror equation in Israel’s favor and lead to a political process with a new Palestinian leadership.

Until then, their strategy is to control terror as best they can, without adopting radical measures that could lead to escalation.