Wanted: A Mideast Endgame

Will Sharon's clampdown work?

If a tombstone were needed for the Middle East peace framework agreed upon nine years ago in Oslo, the events of this Passover and Easter season provided it. Following brutal Palestinian suicide bombings and shootings that left more than 40 Israelis dead in a week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tanks penned Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat into his Ramallah headquarters. In the West Bank, a hail of tank fire is turning the Palestinian Authority to rubble. On Apr. 2, Sharon offered Arafat a one-way ticket to exile, which he refused.

The Israeli Prime Minister is going all out to deliver on the pledge that got him elected just over a year ago: that he would bring security to Israelis. Sharon knows that he has a window of probably just a few weeks before international public opinion and the Bush Administration force him to stop. So he is racing to round up as many gunmen and bombers as his troops can find. He's also trying to cut the Palestinian leadership down to size by arresting Arafat's lieutenants and destroying his trappings of power. Some 800 Palestinians have been detained.

Sharon enjoys broad support from a shell-shocked public. But some Israeli analysts, including security experts, worry that the Prime Minister is heading down a dead end that will wind up radicalizing more Palestinians without quelling the violence. Analysts say he is not offering the Palestinians any incentive short of fear of death to put down their guns and bombs. What's needed, analysts say, is the promise of a political process. "Sharon thinks he is going to bring terrorism under control by military means. He is sadly mistaken," says Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

Sharon isn't talking publicly about his strategy. But in one scenario circling among political observers, the Israelis would take back day-to-day control of life in the West Bank while leaving a weakened Palestinian administration in Gaza, which is easier to isolate from Israel. The Israelis say they don't intend to reoccupy the territories, but with the Palestinian Authority in ruins, they may not have much choice.

Whether or not his troops stay in the West Bank, Sharon hopes that a more moderate Palestinian leadership will emerge after his sweep. For example, the Israelis view Mohammad Dahlan, security chief in Gaza, and his counterpart in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, as potentially more pragmatic leaders than Arafat. If the Palestinian chairman were somehow sidelined, the Israelis might look to Dahlan and Rajoub, who command large numbers of armed men, to fill the power vacuum and maintain order.

But the Israelis probably won't be able to entice high-ranking Palestinians to serve in such roles as long as Arafat remains active in the territories. Even if he were exiled, Arafat would retain influence through the tens of thousands of supporters of his Fatah organization. Anyone openly working with the Israelis would run big risks, as shown by recent killings of nearly a dozen Palestinians accused of collaborating with the Israelis.

Sharon thinks that weakening or eliminating the Palestinian Authority will strike a hard blow against terrorists. But some analysts fear his recent moves will have the opposite effect. "The replacement will be much more fragmented," Walker says. "You won't have specific individuals to blame. [The new leaders] will be much more committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, and increasingly effective."

As the violence escalates, just about everyone agrees that only the U.S. can stop it. But Bush seems ready to give Sharon some time to carry out his campaign. In the U.S. view, Arafat is getting his just deserts for allowing radical groups to flourish under his corrupt and inept administration. He also helped open the way to the current debacle by spurning a U.S.-brokered peace deal in the Clinton Administration's last days.

So there seems to be no apparent way out of the cycle of destruction. It will certainly be months and possibly years before Israelis and Palestinians can sit down and seriously talk about creating two neighboring states as the Oslo accords envisioned. Sharon, the tough ex-general, seems bent on clearing off a game board that wasn't to his liking. He'll worry about picking up the pieces later--or leave that job to others.

By Stanley Reed in London, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem, Susan Postlewaite in Cairo, and Stan Crock in Washington

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