Elected as a hawk, Sharon now championing restraint

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, elected four months ago on a pledge to restore Israel's sense of security, finds himself holding back the dogs of war as Palestinian militants continue picking off Israelis on West Bank roads and firing mortars at residential communities.

After Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party took credit for murdering two Israelis this week in drive-by shootings, Sharon found himself under intense pressure from his right wing to stop complying with the cease-fire and to unleash a punishing — perhaps even mortal — blow to the Palestinian Authority.

Due in Washington for talks early next week, however, Sharon has chosen to heed the broad international consensus on maintaining a cease-fire agreed to last week in hopes that diplomacy and political pressure will impress the Palestinian Authority.

"I am not going to drag this nation into war," Sharon declared at a meeting of his Likud Party on Monday. "This is not the time. This would be a grave mistake."

Members of his party looked grim and downcast. One of them, a West Bank settler, heckled Sharon, insisting that settler leaders do "not want war — just security."

At the funeral the next day of one of the murdered Israelis — 38-year-old Doron Zisserman — settlers spoke openly of their bitter disillusionment with the man often depicted as Israel's arch-hawk, whom they supported in the elections for prime minister earlier this year.

"What kind of cease-fire is this?" asked Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a leading figure in the National Religious Party and the settlers' movement. "We cease and they fire."

Compounding the outrage for Israelis, Fatah officials said the group's militia would continue attacking Israelis, arguing that the cease-fire applies only to those areas under sole Palestinian control, not to Israeli settlements and surrounding areas.

Zisserman, a father of four, was shot Monday by a Palestinian sniper as he was driving into the West Bank settlement of Einav.

The attack took place as a funeral was being held for Danny Yehuda, a 37-year-old father of three young children who was killed in a drive-by shooting earlier that day.

Since the cease-fire went into effect, three Israelis and five Palestinians have been killed. At least 461 Palestinians, 116 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in the eight months of violence since the new intifada began.

Israel said this week it would continue to implement the cease-fire despite the Palestinian Authority's failure to fulfill its obligations under the truce. After a three-hour meeting Wednesday of the Security Cabinet, however, Israeli officials also said they would not fully lift a blockage of Palestinian towns and villages until all attacks on Israelis stopped.

In a statement issued after that meeting, the cabinet also said Israel "reserves the right of self-defense to prevent attacks aimed at its citizens and soldiers."

Likud critics, meanwhile, told reporters Sharon had fallen under the spell of his dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres of the Labor Party.

According to another analysis, Sharon is adopting a policy of restraint because there is no clear recipe for a successful Israeli military campaign against the Palestinians no matter how widespread the desire for revenge.

The past nine months of conflict, with the Israel Defense Force trying all manner of weapons and tactics, have driven home the complexity of the military challenge that guerrilla warfare presents to a regular army, especially in areas of high population density such as the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, many messy "successes" on the ground are wiped out by the price Israel pays in the court of international opinion.

However, some analysts believe Sharon is merely waiting until evidence of Palestinian belligerence is so overwhelming that the Israeli response is met with broad international understanding. Under that scenario, Sharon does not believe Arafat will adhere to the cease-fire but must give Arafat every opportunity to demonstrate his treachery.

In addition, attempts to contain the violence by a broad array of foreign diplomats plainly are having an effect on Sharon.

Amid these concerns, Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to return to the Middle East next week in an attempt to help Israel and the Palestinians adhere to the cease-fire agreements. Meanwhile, Sharon is scheduled to meet with President Bush in Washington on Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told CNN on Tuesday that a remarkably broad international consensus is evolving around the cease-fire negotiated last week by CIA Director George Tenet.

Annan's high personal standing in Israel has enabled him to engage Sharon in a meaningful diplomatic dialogue. The U.N. chief, who visited the Middle East this week, said the United States, European Union, Russia and other world powers are united behind the cease-fire.

That is noteworthy in a conflict that for decades put superpowers and other nations at odds as they sought to wield influence in the region.

According to another view of the situation, Sharon's restraint is born of his desire to maintain the close relationship he has forged with the young Bush administration, which clearly would like the cease-fire to take hold.

If that view were to hold, Sharon will continue to grit his teeth and rein in the IDF — at least until after his visit to the United States next week.

Arafat's motives are similarly opaque. Charitable souls say that after the June 1 disco bombing, he realized Israel had reached the end of its tether and was about to respond with massive force, perhaps toppling the Palestinian Authority itself.

Skeptics, however, believe Arafat is not motivated even by this level of self-preservation but merely chose the cease-fire as a tactical step until international attention moves from the Middle East to other issues. Under that scenario, Arafat then will ratchet up the violence little by little, gradually undermining the cease-fire without openly repudiating it.

Arafat told reporters this week he had given strict orders to prevent attacks on Israelis, adding that Palestinians "do not commit acts of violence."

If Palestinian "pacifism" continues at that pace, however, observers here and abroad say a violent Israeli retaliation is inevitable.