Jewish World Review August 6, 2002 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5762

David Warren

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Has Sharon gone 'wobbly'? | There is a strange lull in the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians -- not in Palestinian terrorism but in the Israeli response. Hinting to colleagues that the U.S. president, George W. Bush, has put him under an obligation to restrain himself, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, is responding to the most determined onslaught of the Al Aqsa Intifada with the equivalent of a wet noodle.

Yesterday he was compelled to re-impose curbs on Palestinian travel between West Bank towns, a few days after beginning to lift them, and after making money available (that had previously been impounded) to the Palestinian Authority for humanitarian works.

Tanks have again surrounded Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, and the whole camp of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. For sure, Israeli police and soldiers are still proceeding with arrests and raids on bomb factories and the like, in what is left of the Nablus casbah, and elsewhere. Yesterday's helicopter raid in Gaza, though it sounded dramatic, was just the airborne equivalent of the ground action at Nablus.

But even while all this was happening, Israel's Iraq-born defence minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was meeting with Palestinian officials to discuss Israeli withdrawals from several locations.

As surely everyone in Israel has noticed, and probably most in the territories, this isn't like Sharon. He came to power as Mr. Retaliation. And he has been willing to ignore even public instructions from President Bush on several recent occasions.

Even Israeli "liberals" are demanding -- in newspaper commentaries -- for Mr. Sharon to "stop daydreaming and act like a man".

What has got into him? Why don't we see a massive new Israeli operation forming -- on a scale beyond Operation Defensive Shield -- as proportional response to several dozen strikes, either successful or attempted, involving not only Hamas but every one of the Palestinian terror brigades? Instead, by all reports, Mr. Sharon is counseling his own party members and coalition allies to keep their cool.

As Sherlock Holmes explained in The Sign of Four -- "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Mr. Sharon is holding his bucket because something is happening on the horizon that is bigger than the fire at his feet.

That something is almost certainly Iraq, where initial preparations for an American strike at the regime of Saddam Hussein are now, for practical purposes, complete. As I wrote several weeks ago, I believe U.S. special forces are already in place, within the country. Mr. Bush must still give the order, but what is new is that he is now in a position to give it, to go in on a fairly large scale at 24-hours' notice, instead of weeks' or months'. And moreover, Saddam is now in a position to know, that the gun is cocked at his head.

Israel can expect six hours' notice from the U.S., when the time comes. This is not as good as the 24 hours' notice it can derive, from its own satellite early warning system, of either Iraqi or U.S. maneuvers that would portend the main event. And the moment that comes, all Israel's resources must be focused on the threat from the skies.

Mr. Sharon may well have, anyway, better information at ground level; for as in the Gulf War of 1991, there is a direct line of connection between Saddam in Baghdad and the Palestinian streets. The present terrorist onslaught has about it a new kind of recklessness. The wild celebrations in Gaza City and elsewhere of the latest massacres of Jews (and Americans at Hebrew University), have a flavor of triumphalism more intense than anything tasted since the Scuds were coming down in 1991.

The Palestinians are acting as if "deliverance is at hand". They've been told, in the mosques and over their airwaves, that "victory is near". And this is beginning to look plausible to them. The job of Palestine's terror brigades is now to distract the Israelis from what is coming in the best way they can, till the missiles rain down from the skies.

Even by the standards of the Middle East, this is sick. For the Palestinian terrorists are, in effect, trying their damnedest to provoke an Israeli reprisal, huge enough to justify, in the eyes of the Arab world, sudden Scud and Katyusha attacks from Iraq and Lebanon. (This tactic -- start more fires than the Americans can put out -- being in turn Saddam's last military gambit. It is the thinking he showed in setting the oil well fires in Kuwait.)

The Palestinian masses are themselves playing a role, half instinctive, and half calculated, in a grand apocalyptic drama. And as in 1991, they seem indifferent to the fact that the missiles will land not only on the Jews, but as often when they miss on their own heads. Hence: "Total Intifada".

But I suspect we have reached the point, where the Israeli government can no longer afford to pay much attention to them, beyond taking routine measures. In this Israeli calculation, the force that is now fuelling the Palestinian Intifada is, both emotionally and practically, coming from elsewhere. And Mr. Sharon knows he can't put out the fire at his feet, until it is stifled at its source, in Baghdad.

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

07/24/02: Evil Sharon
06/19/02: The end is nigh
06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

© 2002, Ottawa Citizen