Just over a year ago, on March 7, 2001, Ariel Sharon took office as Israel's eleventh prime minister, having beaten his predecessor, Ehud Barak, in a landslide. Sharon's election seemed like the ultimate expression of Israeli anger, the choice of a public frustrated by the stagnation of the peace process and the violence of the second Palestinian intifada. After all, Sharon, known as "the Bulldozer," was the ultimate hard-liner: the builder of the settlements and a warrior who had fought the Arabs for more than 50 years. Indeed, Sharon had been responsible for some of the most controversial acts in Israel's military history, including its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Now finally at the helm, he vowed not to negotiate under fire and to fight until terror was defeated. Only then, he promised Israelis, would he make what he called "painful concessions" for peace.

Conditions in Israel are now even worse than when Sharon took office. Palestinian terror attacks occur almost daily and have killed more than 250 Israelis in the past year. Israel has responded with a mix of economic sanctions and escalating military actions. These strikes have included recent, massive incursions into cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza with tanks, troops, and helicopter gunships; Israel even temporarily reoccupied Ramallah with a division-size force. Although more than 640 Palestinians have already been killed in the last year, however, the war of attrition continues with no end in sight. Only a delicate combination of mutual deterrence and international pressure has prevented this low-grade confrontation from exploding into an all-out war.

Meanwhile, Israel's economy has fared no better. Growth has ground to a halt, unemployment has shot up, and the shekel has dropped in value. Israel's man of action has seemed virtually paralyzed in the face of economic and political crises.

And yet even with a national disaster looming on two fronts and no apparent solutions, Sharon remained extremely popular during his first year in office. His job approval rating generally stayed between 50 and 70 percent in weekly opinion polls. Only in late February did his ratings begin to drop below 50 percent. The public must be aware of Sharon's flaws -- after all, his poor job performance is hard to ignore. Yet, apparently convinced that there are no alternatives, Israelis have stubbornly clung to this 74-year-old national father, one of the few figures remaining from Israel's early days.

Sharon, however, has proven unable to translate his remarkably durable popularity into action. Instead, all his energy has gone into fighting for his political survival. The prime minister faces a seemingly insoluble dilemma. He wants to run again in the November 2003 elections, but to do so, he will first have to reaffirm his leadership of the Likud Party. But this means outflanking his rival, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has won over many of the party faithful by preaching tougher military measures against the Palestinians. To beat him, Sharon must swing to the right. Yet he remains bound to the left by the need to maintain U.S. support and to hold together his national unity coalition with the Labor Party. Above all, Sharon wants to keep Shimon Peres, a former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, in office as his foreign minister.

In light of these impossible constraints, it is no surprise that Sharon's first year as prime minister has been characterized by indecisiveness and constant zigzagging between right and left. Urged in one direction by his gut instincts but shackled by politics, even this master tactician seems unable to work out a grand strategy. Instead, Sharon has governed by reaction, not initiative, and has avoided big risks. As a result, he has so far managed to avoid the kinds of major mistakes that marred the tenures of his predecessors, Netanyahu and Barak, and led to their premature downfalls.

In place of vision, Sharon has offered increasing doses of tough language and military blows against the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader, Yasir Arafat. And if Sharon has one accomplishment to boast of, it is that he secured strong American backing, which, at least until recently, helped him further isolate his old nemesis, Arafat. Sharon now openly calls for Arafat's replacement -- something that would have been unthinkable only a year ago. Yet while keeping Arafat under virtual house arrest in Ramallah, Sharon also became the first Likud leader ever to agree publicly to the creation of a Palestinian state.

So far, the Palestinians have responded to Sharon's pressure by using the heaviest weapons in their arsenal, from suicide bombings in Israeli cities to indigenously produced rockets. Israel has retaliated with air power, temporary invasions of Palestinian towns, and targeted assassinations of dozens of suspected terrorists. Neither side has managed to win the war or bring it to a peaceful conclusion. Instead, this gradual escalation has only brought the country ever closer to catastrophe.


The most common question asked about Sharon today is a simple one: Does he know what he's doing? As events spiral from bad to worse, anxious observers at home and abroad wonder if the prime minister actually has a plan for solving the crisis, or if he is simply trying to buy time and survive.

It is no small irony that this question is being asked about Ariel Sharon, of all people. In contrast to most Israeli politicians, who tend to blur their political positions as they climb the ladder to power, Sharon has clung to a narrow ideology for years. And indeed, the short answer to the current question is yes: he does have a plan of sorts, although it does not include the sort of final-status agreement that Palestinians have in mind.

At the core of Sharon's vision lies his map, which he sees as essential to Israel's future security. Under Sharon's plan, Israel would maintain two West Bank "security zones" under its direct control. The wider zone in the east would provide security against invasion (most likely by Iraq) and serve as a buffer between the Palestinian state and Jordan. Sharon once subscribed to the "Jordan is Palestine" school -- rooted in the idea that Israel's neighbor, the population of which is already mostly Palestinian, should be the basis of any future Palestinian homeland. In recent years, however, Sharon has changed his mind and now recognizes that an independent (that is, Hashemite) Jordan remains important to regional stability.

Sharon's second envisioned security zone would lie in the western foothills of the Samarian mountains, along the old 1967 border that divided Israel from the West Bank (then ruled by Jordan). This western buffer would "widen the narrow waist" of Israel and allow it to control the underground aquifer beneath it, which supplies drinking water to Israel proper. Current Israeli settlements in the territories would remain in place -- after all, they were planted there (many of them by Sharon himself) for security reasons in the first place.

According to Sharon's plan, the Palestinians would get control over everything between the two security zones -- albeit with severe restrictions on their sovereignty. Israel would control Palestine's borders with Jordan and Egypt, as well as its airspace and two or three "lateral roads" connecting the two zones. The new state would be demilitarized, banned from joining military pacts, and committed to cooperating with Israel against terrorism. To ensure the contiguity of their state, Sharon would give the Palestinians some additional land and build a system of tunnels and bridges. He would also support rapid economic development in Gaza and the West Bank, which he believes is necessary to reduce Palestinian militancy and national ambitions. Development projects, including a joint Israeli-Palestinian water desalination plant, would be underwritten by international investment. Finally, Sharon's plan calls for "education for peace" in both societies.

Sharon has publicly sketched out these ideas at various times, packaging them as a "long-term interim agreement," an "armistice agreement," or simply a "non-belligerency" pact. As he sees it, only after this plan had been in place a long while (seven years, according to Palestinians who have met with him; Sharon denies having supplied this figure), and only after a "table of expectations" had been fulfilled, would both sides negotiate a final settlement. Thus Sharon has opposed any attempt -- including the various new plans now being floated -- to move up these ultimate negotiations. As his February 20 speech to the nation and earlier statements suggest, what Sharon really wants is to freeze the status quo -- with some symbolic and economic benefits offered to the Palestinians.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sharon has recently discovered that although his plan may sound good to him, no Palestinians are interested in it, even as a basis for negotiations -- at least not without a firm Israeli commitment to move quickly into final-status talks. Sharon may feel that the Palestinians would be better off cutting a deal with him than with a potential successor, since he enjoys strong support in Israel and therefore could actually sell a plan to the Knesset and the public. And he has duly presented his ideas to American and other foreign leaders. But so far the Palestinians have not shown much interest, and Arafat has refused to even consider Sharon's offer.

Since both sides have refused to give ground, Sharon has been unable to initiate negotiations. Instead, he has been left to manage the current war on a day-to-day basis, thus giving the impression that he has no clear strategy for ending it.

In the absence of signs that Sharon can break the deadlock, various theories have arisen to explain his apparent inaction. Critics on the left argue that the former general has not changed since his days as the belligerent architect of the Lebanon war. They argue that his real strategy is to destroy the last remnants of the Oslo peace process, do away with Arafat, and dismantle the PA into smaller "cantons" run by local leaders heavily dependent on Israel. And indeed, Israel's recent blows to the symbols of Arafat's rule -- such as the Palestinian airport or the PA's broadcasting facilities -- have humiliated Arafat and eroded his power, thus giving credence to this theory. So has the fact that Sharon has encouraged his regional military commanders to hold talks with their Palestinian counterparts on a local level.

Many on Israel's right, led by Netanyahu, have dismissed Sharon's inactivity as weakness and have started calling for the reoccupation of the Palestinian territories, the expulsion of Arafat, and increased reprisals against the PA. Sharon, however, has rejected these demands. In mid-February, in fact, he met with Likud parliamentarians and explicitly told them he had no intention of dismantling the PA or reconquering its land. As for Arafat himself, although Sharon has insisted that he is now irrelevant and has toyed with the idea of ousting him in favor of a new, more "pragmatic" Palestinian leadership, he has bowed to the strong opposition of the United States and Europe and hesitated, at least for the time being, to do anything to force his old enemy out.

In fact, both the left and the right in Israel have misinterpreted Sharon's actions. The truth is that he simply has no idea how to end the war with the Palestinians. And indeed, until now, the prolonged low-intensity conflict has helped Sharon hold on to his two most important assets: the national unity coalition and the support of Washington. A diplomatic or military breakthrough could threaten both. The problem, however, is that as the violence has worsened, the Israeli public has grown more and more exhausted and angry and U.S. pressure has mounted. Sharon's holding pattern may not be sustainable for much longer.


Despite the current chaos, Sharon has profited from two precious assets that he inherited from the previous government: a national consensus over Arafat's blame for the failure of the peace process, and a strong popular belief that the Palestinians are indeed out to destroy Israel. These two factors have convinced most Israelis that the current confrontation was unavoidable, the sequel to Israel's war of independence in 1948. This conviction has made the Israeli public much more tolerant of Sharon's stumbling than it might be otherwise.

The effort to blame Arafat for the current conflict began with Bill Clinton and Barak, who convinced most Americans and Israelis that it was Arafat who had rejected the "generous offer" made at the Camp David summit in July 2000 -- and that he had opted for violence instead. Palestinian negotiators only made matters worse by demanding a right of return for the Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel proper in 1948. Israelis, understandably, view such a return as an existential threat, one that would undermine the character of the Jewish state.

The failure of Camp David and of the follow-up negotiations at the Egyptian resort of Taba in January 2001 threw the Israeli left into total disarray, leaving it without an effective leader or agenda. For many years, the left had argued that Arafat and the Palestinian leadership were ready to compromise if only Israel would make the necessary concessions. But when the moment of truth came, Arafat balked and struck his old revolutionary stance. His rejection of an unprecedented offer seemed to undermine the very logic of the Israeli left and the Oslo peace process.

Indeed, many on the left became convinced that there was no point dealing with the Palestinians anymore. The favored alternative became "unilateral separation," a synonym for partial withdrawal from the occupied territories to fortified Israeli borders. A few traditional leftists rejected this idea and continued to cling to the Clinton plan: to establish a Palestinian state in almost all the territories. But this view found little popular support. Meanwhile, Shimon Peres, once a leader of the Labor Party, joined Sharon's cabinet, apparently without any clear policy in mind. In December 2001, Labor chose another former general and the current defense minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, as its new head. But Ben Eliezer has yet to build much of a constituency.

The first cracks in the national consensus supporting Sharon have only recently started to appear. The left is finally starting to show signs of revival, with the resurrected peace movement once more calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the territories. This time, however, leftists have focused mainly on human rights abuses by the Israeli army. A few reserve officers have even begun refusing to serve in the territories. Unlike in the past, however, calls for resuming the peace process remain marginal; Arafat's remarkably low credibility with the Israeli public has made the prospect of serious talks practically impossible.


Sharon's staying power can be attributed to another factor as well: timing. His election coincided with a change of administration in the United States, and on taking office, George W. Bush changed the course of American diplomacy in the Middle East from conflict resolution to conflict management. Bush set himself an unambitious goal: mere "regional stability." Having learned the sour lesson of Clinton's peacemaking fiasco, Bush refused to even meet with Arafat, who had been the most frequent foreign visitor to the Clinton White House.

Sharon had also learned to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. Two previous Likud premiers, Yitzhak Shamir and Netanyahu, fell from power soon after clashing with Washington. Sharon at first seemed headed for just such a clash: he had long been the strongest "America skeptic" in the Israeli leadership, going as far as to oppose the Kosovo war in 1999. But after becoming prime minister, Sharon decided to avoid confrontation with the United States. Somewhat grudgingly, he accepted the Mitchell report -- Washington's panacea for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis -- even though it called for a freeze in settlement building. He also acceded to the Tenet plan, a security addendum to the Mitchell report. But true to form, Sharon also demanded a "testing period" of seven days without Palestinian violence before entering the Tenet-Mitchell process -- thereby making its implementation more difficult. He withdrew this demand in early March only when pressured by a White House impatient to reach a cease-fire; Sharon announced that, given the high level of violence, achieving a week of quiet before talks began no longer seemed possible.

Fortunately for Sharon, cooperating with Washington has not in general proved difficult. Bush's declared reluctance to engage in Middle East peacemaking, in fact, was music to Sharon's ears. Relations were not initially smooth: having recognized Sharon as a potential troublemaker, the White House treated him suspiciously at first, and the State Department tried to micromanage the conflict. But then came September 11. Only days before the attacks on New York and Washington, Bush, bowing to Saudi pressure, had agreed to increase American involvement in the Middle East and launch a new peace initiative. After the attacks, however, Washington lost its patience for states with links to any form of terror. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which had long pressed the Palestinian cause with the United States, suddenly started looking like nurseries for al Qaeda terrorists -- and lost their influence overnight.

Sharon leapt at the opportunity this shift presented, publicly comparing Arafat to Osama bin Laden. When Washington rejected this characterization, Sharon, fearing that the United States would try to buy Arab support for the coming war on terror by pressuring Israel to make concessions, publicly lashed out at what he called Bush's "appeasement" policy. This risky gamble succeeded at first. When Secretary of State Colin Powell outlined America's new policy on November 19, 2001, he called for the creation of a Palestinian state -- but refrained from suggesting what its borders should look like or how to resolve delicate issues such as Jerusalem and refugees. The Powell plan also avoided setting the one thing Sharon dreaded the most: a timetable leading up to final-status talks.

The success of the U.S. war in Afghanistan further weakened moderates in the State Department and strengthened the administration's hawks, Sharon's ardent supporters in Washington. As suicide bombings continued in Israel, Bush adopted a new, tougher stance, voicing his support for Israel's "right of self-defense" (that is, its retaliatory operations), while increasing pressure on Arafat to combat terrorists. This pressure redoubled on January 3, when Israeli commandos intercepted the Karine A, a ship loaded with weapons from Iran en route to Palestinian territory. Having been shown intelligence evidence of Arafat's involvement, Bush felt deceived by the Palestinian leader, who had sworn that he knew nothing about it. The president came close to a total break with Arafat. Sharon failed to convince Bush to let him do away with his rival outright, but Palestinian credibility sank to its lowest point in Washington, and Sharon's freedom of action was enhanced even further.

This situation began to change again only in early March, when Washington, upset by the increasing violence, once more shifted gears on the Middle East. As the Bush team started preparing for the second phase of its war on terrorism -- a probable attack on Iraq -- it began to encounter growing opposition in the Arab world. The United States' closest Arab allies, Jordan and Egypt, openly criticized Bush's hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and warned Vice President Dick Cheney on his tour through the region that it was Sharon, not Saddam Hussein, who posed the real threat to peace.

Bush decided to send his special envoy, the retired Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, back to the area -- this time with a stronger mandate to mediate a cease-fire. Washington even overcame its traditional distaste for un involvement long enough to sponsor Security Council Resolution 1397, which called for an immediate end to hostilities and embraced the "vision" of Israel and Palestine living peacefully "side by side within secure and recognized borders." And when Sharon overplayed his hand militarily, warning about the need to "hit hard" at the Palestinians and ordering a bloody invasion of Palestinian towns, both Powell and Bush chastised the prime minister. At the time of this writing, however, it still remains to be seen how far Washington really plans to go -- that is, whether the recent American gestures are merely political attempts at damage control or signify an actual reengagement in peacemaking.


On the domestic front, Sharon's policy over the last year has been based on a commitment to the status quo. After the meteoric rise and fall first of Netanyahu and then of Barak, the Israeli public was tired of self-appointed revolutionaries and warmly endorsed an old, experienced conservative.

One key to understanding Sharon's approach as prime minister lies in his history. Unlike his predecessors, Sharon came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the shadow of David Ben Gurion -- Israel's founder and first prime minister. As a young, brash commando leader, Sharon became Ben Gurion's tool of retaliation against Arab terror attacks. Sitting in Ben Gurion's chair today, Sharon still likes to reminisce about the old days, and his eyes glimmer when he talks about special units now operating nightly in Palestinian towns -- on missions similar to the ones he used to undertake. In fact, his current policy of hitting PA installations to retaliate for terror attacks on Israelis developed in the 1950s, when the prime minister, "B.G.," would send Sharon to attack police stations in the West Bank. Then, as now, Israel believed that humiliating its Arab enemies would pressure them into curbing terror attacks. In both cases, this strategy has had mixed results: in the 1950s, Israel's retaliations inflamed the regional arms race and eventually led to the Sinai war of 1956, which was followed by a decade of relative quiet. In recent years, meanwhile, retaliations against the PA have had little positive effect.

Retaliation is not the only strategy Sharon has borrowed from his old boss. His domestic policies sound like old Zionist propaganda pledges. He hopes to import a million Jewish immigrants in the next decade, from Argentina and elsewhere, and to use them to settle the Negev Desert. Such goals may be noble, but the Israeli public today cares more about its own prosperity than about the Zionist dream, and it has demanded immediate solutions for pressing economic and social problems -- solutions that Sharon has not been able to offer.


On January 30, Sharon invited three top Palestinian officials -- Mahmood Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), the general secretary of the PLO executive committee; Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council; and Muhammad Rashid, Arafat's financial adviser and close confidant -- for dinner at his official residence in Jerusalem. This was the first face-to-face meeting Sharon had held as prime minister with representatives of the other side. Although Sharon himself denied it, Arafat clearly supported the talks, having sent his top deputies into his adversary's den. Not much progress was made, but the meeting had symbolic value for both sides. Sharon was in the process of packing for his fourth American trip in a year and wanted both to show Washington how flexible he could be and to shoot down rival initiatives that had been floated by his coalition partners, Peres and Ben Eliezer. Arafat likewise hoped to recover some of his favor with Washington.

But did the meeting signal something else, a shift in the plot, a sign that even Sharon might blink and back down from his pledge never to negotiate under fire? At the time of this writing, it is too soon to tell, and there has been no obvious change in Sharon's basic approach other than his decision to stop demanding seven days of quiet before entering talks. Instead, he continues to wait either for a more "moderate" Palestinian leader to emerge or for Arafat to agree to talks about Sharon's own plan. In the meantime, the Israeli leader is determined to outflank rival initiatives, such as the one negotiated between Peres and Abu Ala. This agreement, leaked to the public in late December 2001, would create a Palestinian state immediately after a cease-fire and then lead straight into negotiations on a permanent-status accord. Sharon insists that the timetable envisioned -- one year for talks and another year for implementation -- is too optimistic, and he warns that it will only defer the conflict to a later date. Arafat doesn't seem to like the proposal much either, and the Americans have likewise responded coldly.

The problem with Sharon's tactic is that, having wasted his first year in office saying no to negotiations, the prime minister no longer has the bargaining power he once did. Sharon returned from his Washington trip in February even weaker than he had been before, having heard his suggestion to replace Arafat rejected by Bush. Desperate to do something in the face of increasing public pressure and escalating violence, Sharon gave an unprecedented address to the nation on February 20. But this, too, fell flat. Dismissed by the media as an empty gesture, his speech did include one new proposal: the creation of "buffer zones with fences" (a new name for the "security zones" he has proposed before) to achieve "security separation" between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Before taking office, Sharon had opposed separation or unilateral withdrawal as impractical. But now, at the recommendation of his security chiefs, he has agreed to a version of just that (although, to be fair, Sharon's plan falls far short of full unilateral withdrawal; it leaves the settlements intact, for example). Still, Sharon's buffer zones embody an implied threat to the Palestinians: that Israel may decide to draw its permanent borders unilaterally and lock up the Palestinians behind fences.


No sooner had Sharon proposed to wall in the territories than a dramatic new development arose, taking everyone by surprise: the Saudi peace initiative. Leapfrogging over the current quagmire, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah proposed a new deal: full normalization of relations between the Arab world and Israel, in return for full withdrawal to Israel's June 4, 1967, borders (with some minor modifications and with Israel retaining control over the Western Wall in Jerusalem).

Abdullah's initiative, coming at the end of one of the most frustrating periods since the peace process began, has galvanized Middle East diplomacy. The Saudis' real motivation may have had more to do with improving their image with the United States (badly damaged by the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers came from the desert kingdom) than with making peace with Israel. Nonetheless, they have laid a bold new vision on the table (albeit one that has been mooted before), creating a fresh context for discussion.

From an Israeli viewpoint, the Saudi initiative, even in its crude form, offers some tempting advantages. First and foremost, it strips the conflict to its bare bones: land for peace. Abdullah has not mentioned the right of return for Palestinian refugees or demanded that Israel give up its nuclear weapons. Instead, he has proposed a simple real-estate deal between the Jewish state and its neighbors. He has also suggested that he might be open to minor compromises and land swaps, to resolve some contentious issues. Moreover, Abdullah's offer brings with it something only the Saudis can provide: oil money and religious legitimacy, conferred by the guardian of Islam's holiest sites.

The main hurdle for Israel, of course, is that under the Saudi deal, it would have to return to its 1967 borders -- something every Israeli government since the Six-Day War has pledged not to do. Barak came close, but even he never offered up all of the territory Israel had captured. Sharon will never even consider it; among other things, it would mean evacuating most, if not all, of his beloved settlements.

In many ways, however, Abdullah's formula accepts certain truths that the current intifada has made clear for both sides. Israel will never agree to the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. And the Palestinians will likewise refuse Israel's demand to keep its settlements in the West Bank. Before the outbreak of the current intifada and even during its early stages, both sides seemed somewhat flexible on these issues. But no longer, and Abdullah's plan has the virtue of recognizing that fact.

From Sharon's perspective, however, the prince's initiative is fraught with dangers. The prime minister may attempt to spin it for his domestic audience, arguing that because he stood firm in the face of violence and refused to make concessions under fire, Israel has received a better offer from the Arabs than ever before. But if Sharon rejects the proposal, the Arabs will use it as a reverse Camp David -- arguing before the world that this time it was Israel, not Arafat, who rejected a reasonable offer.

Sharon also risks losing ground at home. If the Arab League formally endorses the plan, including its promise of normalized relations, it could serve as a rallying point for the Israeli left -- something Labor has lacked ever since the election. This could cause Sharon's coalition to collapse and lead to a groundswell of support for a final-status agreement.

Knowing the risks, Sharon has so far treated the Saudi proposal with characteristic caution. He initially tried to buy time, asking for "clarifications" and hinting at a possible positive reaction. Most likely, however, he will try to treat the Saudi initiative as he treated the Mitchell report, killing it softly, through inattention and foot-dragging.

What we can expect from Jerusalem, then, is more of the same. Sharon will keep trying to win this war of attrition by military means and will try to avoid substantive negotiations unless and until the Palestinians surrender. Knowing that American backing is essential, Sharon will do all he can -- including avoiding excessive escalation -- to keep Washington on board.

Given that neither Israel nor the Palestinians show signs of imminent collapse, the two adversaries are likely to continue bleeding each other for the near future. As Palestinian attacks escalate, Sharon will face growing pressure to reconquer the territories and rid them of terrorists. Such operations, however, as have recently occurred in Jenin, Balata, and Ramallah are bound to be costly in Israeli, not just Palestinian, blood. And Israel has no clear exit strategy for ending a prolonged reoccupation.

The one factor that might change this scenario is an American operation to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Such an initiative could vary Sharon's fate in a few ways. Washington, anxious for Saudi and Egyptian support, may push Sharon into making compromises and starting peace talks -- perhaps on the basis of the Saudi proposal. On the other hand, if Arafat repeats his 1991 folly and once again sides with Saddam, Sharon might finally seize the chance to get rid of his enemy.

The Persian Gulf War put an end to the first intifada and led Israelis and Arabs into Oslo. A second round could have a similar outcome. If, however, Israel gets hit by the ricochets -- Iraqi missiles in retaliation for American bombing, for example -- the attack could work to Sharon's advantage. Even anticipating such an event, Israelis could well decide to reelect their oldest, most experienced leader.

The fact that Sharon has survived this long demonstrates his remarkable capacity for maintaining a broad coalition under pressure. But his domestic challenges remain very serious. The heavy escalation of violence in late February and early March, combined with his slide in the polls, led Sharon to tilt first to the right, as when he called on Israel to "cause many Palestinian casualties," and then to the left, as when he abandoned his demand for seven days of quiet and ended Arafat's virtual house arrest. Such zigzags have caused the first serious rifts in Sharon's coalition; the recent defection of an extreme right-wing party has made the prime minister even more vulnerable to domestic pressure.

Already, Sharon's political adversaries smell his weakness. Ben Eliezer has called for an early election in November, a year before Sharon's term expires. Although Sharon need not agree, Labor could then defect from the government. Sharon might then cobble together a narrow right-wing coalition, but such an alliance would make it extremely difficult to actually govern.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is increasing the pressure on Sharon from the right. The prime minister is doing all he can to buy himself more time, hoping to hold his coalition intact through this summer's Knesset session and survive in office until 2003. And he may just make it. But as he bides his time, still hoping for a chance to win a decisive victory over his bitter enemy, Sharon's power will wane, and his ability to influence events will continue to diminish -- even as his country grows ever more desperate for a speedy recovery.

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  • Aluf Benn is Diplomatic Correspondent for Ha'aretz, an Israeli daily newspaper. He has covered Israel's foreign policy and the Arab-Israeli peace process since 1993.
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