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Sharon's Missteps, U.S. Opposition Undermine Israeli Plans


JERUSALEM — A week ago, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched Israel's biggest military operation in the West Bank since 1967, he envisioned an open-ended assault on Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers--one that might run as long as America's post-Sept. 11 campaign.

Now the retired general's plan has been undermined--in part by his own miscalculations, in part by opposition from President Bush, an ally whose anti-terrorist crusade he identifies with his own.

Bush's call Thursday for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank and his decision to dispatch Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region next week has put Sharon under pressure to bring the operation to a halt.

Israeli officials acknowledge that Sharon has little choice but to abandon, for now, his strategy of isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and trying to crush Arafat's militant supporters. But suspending an offensive that has broad support among Israelis will be politically risky.

After Bush's speech, which set no deadline for withdrawal, Sharon's office issued a terse announcement that the assault would continue. On Friday, Israeli troops moved into another West Bank town, Tubas, and apparently killed the alleged mastermind of the Passover suicide bombing that left 26 Israelis dead and triggered the offensive.

But Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, a member of the army general staff, acknowledged that "we might have to stop this operation a little sooner" than planned because of Powell's peace mission. Other Israeli officials said they expected a partial withdrawal to be underway by the time Powell arrived.

"The slow-sinking sands in the hourglass of Operation Defensive Shield have been replaced by a clicking stopwatch," military analyst Hemi Shalev wrote Friday in the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "Instead of an orderly, planned military operation, the [army] will have to hurry to do what it can."

Previous incursions into the West Bank lasted a few days and failed to stem a wave of suicide bombings. Sharon's impatience with half-measures was shared by most Israelis. A poll, taken as the latest offensive got underway and published Friday in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, gave him a 62% approval rating.

Over the last week, Israel has called up 33,000 reservists and sent armored vehicles into nearly every major West Bank city. Israeli troops have killed more than 70 Palestinian militants and seized piles of weapons, including 50 antitank grenades, nine bombs and nearly 2,000 guns. More than 1,200 Palestinians are being detained.

Measured against Sharon's professed aim to destroy the Palestinians' "terrorist infrastructure," these gains are modest. Israeli newspapers say no more than 110 of the detainees can be linked to terrorist acts, only about a dozen are prominent militants, and hundreds more remain at large.

"We are reaching into the infrastructure and disrupting it," said Danny Ayalon, Sharon's senior foreign policy advisor. "But if we stop halfway, the terrorists will bounce back at us as soon as we pull out. This will be detrimental to any kind of peace effort. If we don't uproot the terror, we'll have no chance for a real cease-fire."

Bush has voiced sympathy for Israel's efforts to go after terrorists. But he intervened Thursday, U.S. officials said, because the conflict was threatening to spill beyond Israel's borders, undermine friendly governments in Egypt and Jordan, and thwart Washington's effort to build consensus for a military attack on Iraq.

'Sharon Can Blame Only Himself'

The American leader faulted both sides for contributing to the growing violence.

Israeli critics say Sharon brought the pressure on himself by inciting angry protests throughout the Arab world and Europe, prompting America's allies to lean on Bush.

The images of Israeli tanks rolling through Palestinian cities and of soldiers keeping ordinary people locked inside for days were bad enough. But Sharon might have weathered the storm, his critics say, had he not made two blunders. He sent tanks to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians as Jesus' birthplace, after Palestinian gunmen took refuge inside. And his troops seized Arafat's headquarters, confined the Palestinian leader to a few rooms and cut him off from visitors. Sharon then threatened to send his nemesis away with "a one-way ticket."

"Sharon can blame only himself for shortening the [army's] window of time," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote Friday in Yediot Aharonot. "He tried to humiliate and disgrace Arafat and ended up turning him into a world martyr. He ended up portraying Israel as a desecrator of holy sites. These two issues show how large the gap is between being right and being smart."

Sharon ended Arafat's isolation Friday, at least temporarily, by letting U.S. special envoy Anthony C. Zinni into the Palestinian leader's compound for a 90-minute meeting.

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