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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

October 31, 2002

Israel's unity over Palestine will not crumble

While terrorist leaders try to convince themselves they are making headway with the Intifada, they are once again wrong
For two long and bloody years, Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership have been waiting for an Israeli prime minister - first Ehud Barak and then Ariel Sharon - to make a fatal mistake that would lead to internal splits within Israel and ultimately to inter- national intervention. Yet in spite of dozens of terrorist bombings, the Israeli response can only be described as measured, unity has been maintained and it is Mr Arafat who has become isolated in the world.

If the Palestinians expect the break-up this week of Israel's coalition government and the increased influence of Israel's fringe rightwing parties to "unleash the real Sharon" and reverse this outcome, they will be disappointed: Mr Sharon, like many Israelis, understands the Palestinian strategy and he is not about to fall into the trap now. With or without Labour, the most likely direction is continuity in implementing effective responses to terror attacks, while carefully avoiding policies that would lead to discord and isolation. Mr Sharon's approach began immediately after his huge election victory in February 2001, when he opted for a broad coalition with the Labour party instead of a Likud-dominated government with a narrow agenda. He even brought in Shimon Peres, his former arch-rival and the architect of the disastrous Oslo process, to serve as foreign minister. Mr Peres and the Labour party were a moderating influence on the government, arguing against calls to send Mr Arafat packing. The need for compromise led to cancellation of military operations, such as the reoccupation of Gaza, and to the removal of unauthorised settlement outposts, in spite of the anguish among settlers.

Some now believe that Labour's exit from the coalition makes Mr Sharon dependent on the far-right parties to maintain a parliamentary majority. According to this view, pressure from the more confrontational members of his own Likud party (supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister) will also increase. Furthermore, the appointment of Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief, as defence minister is seen by some as presaging unconstrained military activity against Palestinian terror cells, confrontation with Hizbollah guerrillas and a pre-emptive strategy against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In political terms, so the argument goes, discussions of the "road map" towards resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, even without Mr Arafat, are now off the agenda.

While plausible, this theory is also highly improbable. Israelis are aware of the Palestinian expectation of a repetition of the events during the Lebanese war, in which domestic conflict forced a unilateral retreat. And, for this reason, Mr Sharon and other Israeli leaders are determined to prevent it from happening again.

In addition, Mr Sharon has recognised the importance of good relations with the US and has avoided policies that might endanger them. Meanwhile, Mr Arafat has become persona non grata in the White House and President George W. Bush, in his June 24 speech, demanded extensive Palestinian reform and the replacement of Mr Arafat before moving forward with any renewed peace efforts.