What will Sharon do as violence nears edge of war

The killings came so fast this week that Israel's online newspapers couldn't keep up.

The surge of violence, and hints of a new level of sophistication by Palestinian terrorists, forced Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to reconsider his government's strategy in what looks more and more like a war footing.

The violence included some of the worst since the intifada began in September 2000, with death tolls on both sides rising with each tit-for-tat attack.

Facing mounting political pressure from both right and left, Sharon on Wednesday launched a series of air, sea and ground attacks on Palestinian security positions across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Those attacks, which killed at least 30 Palestinians — mostly security officials, at least four civilians and two suicide bombers — came in reprisal for the murder of six Israeli soldiers at a Ramallah-area roadblock Tuesday night, and the killing of six other Israelis in three other incidents since Saturday.

Israel's heavy bomb and rocket attacks against Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Gaza and Ramallah on Wednesday once again stopped short of directly targeting the Palestinian Authority president.

This time, the question on everyone's mind was, "What's next?"

Sharon would not give any details of what was decided at Wednesday's Security Cabinet meeting.

His spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, said Wednesday's series of strikes in the West Bank and Gaza "might be a small example of the kind of operations that would come to end the terror."

In Washington, there were rumbles of concern about the dramatic rise in violence but no indication 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 retaliatory attacks.

Some analysts predicted 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 here. "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.

And then there's the Israeli right and left to contend with.

Israel's hawks 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 is also facing pressure from the other side of the political spectrum as the number of army reserve officers refusing to serve in the territories grows.

"Israelis just can't stand it any more," said Judith Kipper, director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That's what we're seeing in the polls."

This week's violence was among the bloodiest of the nearly 17-month-old conflict. 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 raid by Palestinian gunmen at a checkpoint near Ramallah.

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

Faced with several choices that seem equally unsatisfactory, many more Israelis are beginning to support a unilateral withdrawal from the territories.

"There is no military solution to the conflict," was the refrain heard in newspaper columns and from political figures following a week filled with rocket attacks and terrorist killings.

Israeli intelligence officials said that despite stepped-up military and diplomatic pressure on the Palestinians, Arafat was heartened by the calls for withdrawal and other signs of weakening Israeli morale, and had intensified the intifada to widen the cracks in Israeli resolve.

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

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," he said.

But even if Sharon dramatically escalates the military pressure, the administration may not rescind that green light.

Sharon's instinct "will be to crack down hard," said Robert O. Freedman, a leading pro-peace Mideast analyst. "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."

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 Walker. "Arafat has managed to totally alienate this administration in ways that have made it very easy for Sharon."