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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Analysis: Sharon's options
Scene of suicide bombing in a social club in Rishon Letzion
The bombing occurred despite Israel's recent operation
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By Paul Reynolds
BBC Middle East analyst
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has had to rush back home from Washington after the suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion.

He did the same last December, so one can conclude that those who planned the bomb timed it carefully to produce maximum effect.

Rishon Letzion, a city south of Tel Aviv, is itself highly symbolic.

It was the first Zionist settlement in the 19th Century. Its name means "First to Zion".

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (l) and US President George W Bush
Mr Sharon wants US funding to build a fence around Palestinian areas
To Israelis, it must seem as if they are back to square one.

They have mounted a huge operation into the West Bank but still they are attacked. So what can Mr Sharon do now?

There are likely to be two strands to any decision - action and Arafat.

The first means military action. Despite urgings from President Bush for a full withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, Mr Sharon has stated publicly that he will order the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in again if he thinks it necessary.

It is a revolving door policy. The military will go in and out at will.

New target?

One immediate issue is whether the IDF will go into Gaza, which so far had been left largely alone, partly because it has a fence around it and has therefore been less of a problem to Israel.

If the latest bomber came from Gaza, then Gaza might be a target.

Mr Sharon will want to present this as a long struggle. Part of his response might be to increase the training of army units in urban guerrilla warfare.

Palestinians carry the coffin of Islamic Jihad activist, Hazim Al Wadi, in Gaza City
If the latest bomber came from Gaza, Israel may strike back
Shortcomings in training were exposed during the recent West Bank fighting. Palestinian fighters were very effective in places.

If there are more bombings, an option for Israel would be to reoccupy the West Bank totally - and stay there for an extended period.

In the meantime, Mr Sharon will probably try to speed up the construction of a fence around the Palestinian areas. He wants Washington to help pay for this. There would thus be a policy of seeing a separation, not a settlement.

Arafat pressure

The second issue is Yasser Arafat himself. Mr Sharon went to Washington partly to urge George Bush to factor the Palestinian leader out of American policy.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Mr Bush criticised the "leadership" of Mr Arafat
Mr Bush refused to do this, while at the same time criticising Mr Arafat for failing to show "leadership".

That means failing to stop the suicide bombers.

Mr Sharon will now face demands from hardliners in his own Likud party to expel Mr Arafat. This pressure has already made him back away from statements he has made favouring a Palestinian state.

He faces a hard job of getting reappointed Likud's leader for the next Israeli elections.

He considered such a move before but was reportedly warned by his security chiefs that this would simply increase sympathy for the Palestinians worldwide.

'Diplomacy floundering'

But one of his ministers who travelled to Washington with him, Limor Livnat, the Education minister, has said that the Israeli Government might have "no choice" but to expel Yasser Arafat.

But expulsion would mean closing the door to talks.

Not that talks have much meaning as harsh events follow each other with such speed.

Diplomacy is floundering. The American plan a Middle East conference looks like first aid.

The reality is, as it often is in the Middle East, is conflict.

See also:

08 May 02 | Middle East
Witnesses speak of bomb horror
07 May 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem snags blight Sharon talks
07 May 02 | Middle East
Italy 'in dark' over Bethlehem deal
07 May 02 | Americas
Sharon steps up diplomacy
08 May 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
08 May 02 | Middle East
UN condemns Israel over Jenin
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