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Sharon isn't oil on troubled water

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has brought a rare civility to Cabinet meetings once notorious for their acrimony.

His "national unity" government is one of the largest and most fractious coalitions in Israel's 52-year history — 26 ministers and 14 deputy ministers representing seven parties that disagree on everything from how to handle the Palestinian uprising to separating the Jewish state from religion.

But Sharon wants "serious, dignified and polite discussion," almost unheard of in a country where politicians routinely insult each other. His ground rules, listed in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth are: "Be on time, keep comments to a minimum and never shout down a Cabinet colleague." How long they will be observed remains to be seen.

The Cabinet includes such disparate characters as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; and Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, who calls the Palestinians "vermin" and says they ought to be driven out of the biblical land of Israel.

Just how Sharon intends to keep his promises to restore security to Israel and make peace with the Arabs are also question marks.

In a half century as soldier and politician, the 73-year-old premier has always adopted a confrontational approach to the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors. To this day he refuses to shake Arafat's hand, calling him a war criminal, and accuses him of inciting the latest Palestinian uprising.

Palestinians and Arab governments likewise regard Sharon as a war criminal for a massacre of West Bank villagers in 1953 and a worse bloodletting of Palestinian refugees in Beirut during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

"This 'man of peace' cannot hide his criminal past," said Syria's official newspaper, predicting there would be no negotiations with Israel as long as Sharon is in power.

The Palestinians are in no mood to bargain with Sharon for less than they were offered by his predecessor, Ehud Barak, whose concessions were not enough to meet their aspirations. Sharon, for his part, says there can be no bargaining until the violence ends.

But how to end it? Everything Israel has tried militarily or economically has not worked.

Snipers, tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships have not subdued the Palestinians. Selective assassinations of Palestinian leaders suspected of plotting terrorist attacks have done nothing but goad more terrorism. The bulldozing of homes, orchards and other cover around potential ambush sites has spawned more ambushes.

Israel has withheld tax revenues from Arafat's Palestinian Authority and applied other forms of collective punishment to entire Palestinian communities.

Farmers can no longer work their fields, students are prevented from going to school and 130,000 Palestinian workers have been cut off from their jobs in Israel.

The economic blockade has cost the Palestinian economy an estimated $1 billion. U.N.officials report that a million Palestinians now live on less than $2 a day and that Arafat's government is on the verge of collapse. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, has already warned that "semi-anarchy and gang rule" are beginning to replace Palestinian government institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Has any of this made Israel more secure? No.

Although most of the 425 people killed in the past six months have been Palestinians, ambushes and bomb attacks have demoralized Israelis. Police in Jerusalem receive 250 calls a day from jittery people who have seen a suspicious object they think may be a bomb. And sales of homes in Jewish settlements have plummeted because driving to them, even on newly built bypass roads, means running a gauntlet of Palestine gunfire. The Bush administration supports Sharon's contention that there can be no peace talks until the violence ends. But it has criticized many of Israel's tactics, including the assassinations and economic reprisals.

"We acknowledge Israel's security needs," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, "but we've seen steps that don't always respond to security needs. They place hardship on families, undermine relations between Israel and the Palestinians and don't really quiet the security situation."


Holger Jensen is international editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail to hjens@aol.com .