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The BBC's Paul Moss
"Sharon... is a man who seems to thrive on opposition"
 real 28k

Friday, 27 April, 2001, 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK
Is Sharon coming or going?
Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Sharon has recently appeared indecisive and weak
By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is facing a serious dilemma.

His instincts are to come down hard on Palestinian violence, especially attacks on Israel. But this has drawn unambiguous criticism from Washington, Israel's chief ally and backer.

On the other hand, if he does not attack Palestinian violence at its source, Mr Sharon can be accused of being weak and of bowing to US pressure.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Powell's criticism of Israel was unusually strong
Perhaps under US pressure, Mr Sharon recently struck an unusually conciliatory tone in talking about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Before there had been only vilification.

Mr Sharon has also given a reasonably warm reception to Egyptian-Jordanian proposals aimed at ending the violence that has raged since September last year.

On the surface, the various approaches that Mr Sharon seems to be deploying appear contradictory. They may, however, be a sign that the Israeli prime minister is developing a more nuanced approach to the peace process and the security concerns of Israelis.

Praise for Arafat

Both Mr Sharon and his defence minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, have praised Mr Arafat, for being a "strong leader" and stopping Palestinian mortar attacks on Israeli targets.

Most significantly, Israeli officials are trying to show that they distinguish between Palestinians suffering under Israeli blockades and security measures, who they say they want to help, and Palestinians committed to attacking Israelis, who they want to crush.

Palestinians protest on the rubble of a home shelled by Israel
The incursions into Gaza may embolden the Palestinians
This new attitude may give Mr Sharon enough room for manoeuvre to get back to at least a semblance of talks without a complete cessation of the violence.

Mixed signals

Mr Sharon's dilemma over what military tactics to adopt in response to Palestinian violence played itself out dramatically in two short-lived incursions into Palestinian areas of the Gaza strip in the middle of April.

Israel said these were in response to Palestinian mortar attacks on Israel and on Jewish settlements in Gaza.

The first of these incursions was abruptly terminated after Washington described the action as "excessive and disproportionate".

The confusion and mixed signals have undermined Mr Sharon's claim that he can bring an end to the Palestinian uprising and restore a sense of security to Israelis. He has emerged looking weak and confused.

Tearing up Oslo

The deployment of tanks was a typically bold move by Mr Sharon.

From his point of view, it appeared make military sense. The aim seemed to be to set up a buffer zone to prevent Palestinian mortar attacks on Israel.

Israeli tank in Gaza
The brief Gaza incursions made little military sense
The fact that the action effectively tore up the 1993 Oslo agreement meant little to Mr Sharon - he had always opposed Oslo.

When Israeli the tanks went in the first time, all the signs were that troops might stay there for weeks.

Military's concern

There was, therefore, general astonishment in Israel that Mr Sharon ordered the tanks out of Gaza after only 24 hours.

Both Israelis and Palestinians now appear to be locked into a cycle of attack, retaliation, counter-attack and further retaliation.

The appearance of indecision on the part of the Israeli military may even embolden those Palestinians set on attacking Israel and the settlements.

Because they were so short-lived, the Israeli incursions failed even on the most basic level. If they were intended to stop Palestinian mortar attacks they had no impact.

US relations

Washington's criticism of Israel was uncharacteristically strong. A statement from Secretary of State Colin Powell reminded Israel, and the Palestinians, of their obligations under international agreements.

Mr Sharon appears to have assumed that the new administration would not mind that the Oslo peace process, for which the US was the main sponsor, was being killed off.

Mr Sharon's policies may, therefore, have the potential to chill relations with Washington.

Past Likud prime ministers, notably Yitzhak Shamir and Binyamin Netanyahu, had occasionally strained relations with the US.

But though US-Israeli relations may go through a rocky period, there is unlikely to be a breakdown and or even a shift in US policy.

The Palestinians are hoping that American rebuke of Israel will at least be a sign of increasing engagement with regional issues.

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