JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, back at work after recovering from a weeklong flu, faced a barrage of criticism Sunday for failing to find a military or diplomatic solution to 17 months of fighting with the Palestinians.
As Israelis buried three soldiers and two teenagers killed since Friday and Palestinians tried to carry out a second suicide bombing in less than 24 hours, pundits, politicians and folks on the street angrily demanded a new policy from Sharon.
"Where is Sharon?" asked Tommy Lapid, leader of the opposition Shinui Party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "I demand that Sharon speak to us. . . . Mr. Sharon, I know that you won't come up with a solution, so admit that you don't have a solution, but speak to the Israeli public."
Instead, Sharon held a lengthy discussion with his security Cabinet, offering no comment when he emerged. Shortly after the meeting, police killed two Palestinians who they said were en route to carrying out a suicide attack in the coastal town of Hadera.
The shootout unfolded on a highway crowded with evening rush-hour commuters, after police pulled over a white sedan near a northern Israeli army base because the numbers on its front and back license plates did not match.
One of the two men inside threw a pipe bomb at the officers and opened fire on them, a police spokesman said. He was shot dead, and his companion sped away with officers in pursuit. The chase lasted several minutes, with officers shooting at the fleeing driver until his car burst into flames on the highway, killing him, the spokesman said. Three officers were injured. Both Palestinians were strapped with explosive belts, and their car contained pipe bombs and guns, according to reports.
West Bank leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said the group planned the attack. They said the men planned to detonate explosives at the base and spray it with gunfire.
The incident tied up traffic for hours, but commentators praised the police for averting a disaster and lifting morale, which had been seriously battered by three days of embarrassing security failures.
This morning the army said that overnight it captured three would-be suicide bombers in the West Bank.
On Thursday, Palestinian militants destroyed an Israeli tank and killed three of its crew members. On Friday, they killed a soldier at a West Bank roadblock. And on Saturday, a 20-year-old from Kalkilya, in the West Bank, blew himself up in a crowd of Jewish teenagers in the nearby settlement of Karnei Shomron, killing two 15-year-olds.
In another incident, the commanding officer of an elite undercover army unit died when a wall fell on him during an operation in a West Bank village Friday.
"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearing a situation of a complete loss of control," wrote analyst Rubik Rosenthal in the daily newspaper Maariv. "Ariel Sharon's strategy is collapsing. Never in Israel's history have so many civilians been killed in terror attacks as in the past year. The [Israel Defense Forces] is protecting itself, and that too is with limitations, but is incapable of protecting the civilians."
The Palestinians, Rosenthal said, "are losing the battles to a superior force, but Israel is losing the war."
Cracks have begun to appear in Israeli national unity, which for months appeared nearly monolithic in its response to a perceived existential threat from the Palestinians.
"The government, the army and we are moving about in shock, hurting and worried, with no sign of hope, initiative or vision," wrote Amnon Dankner, editor of Maariv.
A protest movement launched last month by reserve combat soldiers and officers refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip drew the Cabinet's attention Sunday, with Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer suggesting that the army give the dissenters a platform to voice their criticisms.
Ben-Eliezer suggested opening a dialogue with the men--more than 200 of whom have signed a published letter saying they won't defend Jewish settlements or carry out orders they consider immoral against Palestinian civilians. Sharon rejected the idea.
The reservists' public protest continues to stir debate here as no other criticism of the army's conduct in the conflict has, and it has spurred the dispirited left into action. A coalition of peace groups, which had been unable to attract a crowd since peace talks collapsed and violence erupted in September 2000, drew several thousand to a Tel Aviv rally Saturday night.
The grass-roots protest movement Peace Now launched a new campaign at the rally to "withdraw from the territories and return to ourselves." Peace Now leader Galia Golan said the group realizes it runs the risk of alienating the Israeli public by calling for peace talks as Palestinian attacks continue, "but we are sensing a change in the public mood out there."
What remains unclear is whether the public's increasing desperation for a solution will lead to negotiations or to an escalation of attacks on the Palestinian Authority and Arafat.
Uzi Landau, the hard-line minister of internal security, urged Cabinet ministers Sunday to take an uncompromising approach.
"You have to fight the terror and, like AIDS, you don't negotiate with it, you win it," Landau said.
Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right National Union, directed his criticism at Sharon, saying the government's policy drift is what happens when "you don't have a clear political destination and your security reactions are confused."
Even Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, a close Sharon ally, said the government has to "seriously contemplate the path we have followed so far, whether it is the right way or maybe it has to be altered."