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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 19:44 GMT 20:44 UK
Sharon's dilemma
Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon - under pressure from all sides
By Frank Gardner in Jerusalem

It can't be easy being the current Prime Minister of Israel. Ariel Sharon is loathed by almost the entire Arab world, his cabinet is deeply divided, and even the Jewish settlers who helped vote him in, are accusing him of betraying their interests.

At a stormy cabinet meeting recently, Mr Sharon reportedly found himself defending the current policy of restraint, while some called for war.

Dozens have been killed since a ceasefire began.

Most of the dead are Palestinians, but many of the Israeli victims are settlers.

A girl plays at the site of a house demolished in Gaza last month
A Palestinian girl in rubble left by an Israeli demolition
One minister reportedly demanded a massive offensive against the Palestinians, using jet fighters, artillery and helicopters.

But Mr Sharon apparently slammed his fist on the table, telling right wing ministers: "You're all heroes, but the responsibility is mine."

Itching for revenge

Hardliners in the Israeli establishment are itching to exact revenge for the Tel Aviv suicide bombing in June which killed 21 Israelis.

So what's holding him back?

Many in the Arab media believe the Israeli prime minister is only waiting for the right opportunity to unleash the might of his army.

Palestinians burn an effigy of Ariel Sharon
Sharon is loathed by the Arab world
They speculate that a strike could be in the form of a death blow to the Palestinian Authority.

They say the aim would be to remove the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, perhaps returning him to exile, and thereby putting off indefinitely the day when Israel would have to hand back occupied Arab land.

The Israeli media too is speculating that a plan has been drawn up to reoccupy Palestinian areas that Israel has already handed back.

Israeli ministers have denied such a plan exists.

International criticism

Certainly either scheme would draw huge international criticism, even from Israel's ally the United States.

But there's also the possibility that Ariel Sharon does not actually want a war, that he's just using the threat of it as a tool to contain the Palestinians and to appease his right wing.

Since the 'ceasefire' began on 13 June, the violence has settled into a low-level pattern of attrition.

Around one person is being killed every day.

That's enough for Mr Sharon to stall on starting peace talks, but perhaps not enough to prod him to go to war.

The BBC's Frank Gardner
"Against the background of low level violence, the peace process has ground to a halt"
See also:

10 Jul 01 | Middle East
US condemns 'provocative' Israel
09 Jul 01 | Middle East
Suicide bomber dies in Gaza blast
08 Jul 01 | Middle East
Palestinian boy shot dead in Gaza
06 Jul 01 | Middle East
Sharon talks up Europe visit
04 Jul 01 | Middle East
Israel army given freer rein
02 Jul 01 | Middle East
Mid-East truce 'close to collapse'
27 Jun 01 | Middle East
Arabs want US to push Israel
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