JERUSALEM — A series of attempted bombings averted only by the quick actions of civilians and security officers has frayed Israeli nerves and raised questions about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to negotiate under fire with the Palestinian Authority.
The latest failed bombing came Friday as Israelis rushed to prepare for the Jewish Sabbath. A young woman, described by police as a 23-year-old mother of two from the West Bank city of Nablus, refused to allow a security guard at Tel Aviv's crowded central bus station to search her bag. After a struggle, she was arrested, and 13 pounds of explosives, nails and metal shards were found in the bag, police said.
The attack was thwarted just hours after soldiers detonated another bomb that was hidden in a burning tire near Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank. A day earlier, a 52-year-old bus driver became a hero when he shoved off his bus a Palestinian youth who had boarded it carrying a black bag bristling with wires and switches. The bag contained a large bomb, an army spokesman said.
No one was hurt in any of the incidents. Nor were there any injuries a few days ago when a large bomb was discovered inside a hollowed-out watermelon on a bus, or when a small bomb exploded in a beer can sitting on a grocery store shelf in Jerusalem.
But the sense of siege and impending catastrophe created by the almost daily close calls is sparking criticism of Sharon's policies.
His principle of not negotiating while attacks continue is still widely popular with the public. But critics from the left, right and center charge that he has failed to either restore security or achieve peace, as he promised to do in his election campaign.
"Sharon is getting it from both sides," said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Every time the prime minister sends his son and confidant, Omri, or Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the right accuses Sharon of breaking his promise not to negotiate, Avineri said. Every time the prime minister sends Israeli special forces to kill Palestinian gunmen, the left accuses him of hurtling toward war.
"He doesn't have a strategy," Avineri said. "He is improvising and taking it one day at a time."
Within his own Cabinet, right-wing ministers are urging Sharon to declare the Palestinian Authority a terrorist entity and mount a massive assault against it even as the dovish Peres argues that Israel should launch a new peace initiative and hand more territory to the Palestinians.
Sharon has publicly rejected Peres' call to negotiate, saying that to do so while attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers continue would be to "reward terrorism." In a speech Thursday at a military graduation ceremony outside Tel Aviv, Sharon told Israelis that eight years after embarking on a process that was expected to have culminated in a two-state solution, they should lower their expectations.
"A cleareyed view of the continued state of animosity demands a different approach than the one we have tried so far with the Palestinians," he said, adding that his goal is "gradual progress based on interim agreements, with the long-term goal of reaching a state of nonbelligerence."
But the Palestinians say they will not abandon what they call their struggle for liberation from Israeli occupation for long-term interim arrangements that will, in effect, perpetuate Israel's hold on those parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that it still controls. And Israel's campaign to eliminate Palestinians whom it suspects of planning or carrying out attacks has united Palestinian political factions and the Palestinian public in calls for revenge rather than a return to negotiations.
An opinion piece released late Thursday by WAFA, the Palestinian news agency, offered a rare hint that the Palestinian leadership might be searching for a way to cool this anger and rein in militants. Signed by someone identified only as "Political Editor," the piece called for the shooting to stop and the uprising that erupted last September to continue by political means.
"We have to admit that no matter how many casualties we cause the Israelis, we will not be able to win the war against them. . . ," the piece said. "Only by political means shall we be able to achieve our goals, by the use of rocks to fight the Israelis, on the roadblocks and in the settlements, not inside Israel and not using firearms."
Officials in the prime minister's office interpreted the commentary not as an olive branch but as evidence that the Palestinian Authority fears that if one of the would-be bombers succeeds, that could trigger the sort of massive Israeli retaliation that could topple the authority and force Arafat into exile.
But some Israeli commentators joined Peres this week in arguing that Israel's only hope of avoiding further escalation is to reach out to the Palestinians.
"We must negotiate under fire. Years of bloody warfare throughout the world could not have ended any other way," said Yoel Marcus, an influential centrist political commentator for the newspaper Haaretz. Sharon's popularity "gives him strength that crosses political lines," Marcus said. The retired general "has the power of the people behind him--to attack, but also to extend a hand."
In the same paper, left-wing columnist Doron Rosenblum said that the "constant reiterating of that mantra" of no negotiations under fire "worked pretty well for almost a year, but something of its spell is now beginning to fade."