At End of First Year, Sharon Vows to Increase Pressure on Palestinians

As Ariel Sharon completed his first year in power Wednesday, he banged his fist on a podium and told soldiers a stepped-up military campaign would be waged until "the other side understands it can't achieve anything through terror."

Israelis elected Sharon in the hope he could guarantee their security, yet today the Mideast is enduring one of its worst spasms of violence in 17 months of fighting, with Israelis being killed in higher numbers than under Sharon's predecessor.

The burly Israeli leader has pursued the policies he pledged at his inauguration last March 7: tough military action and a prohibition on any peace negotiations until the Palestinian uprising ceases.

However, Sharon's forecast that Israel's powerful military would crush Palestinian militancy hasn't come to pass, and the battle of attrition has now claimed more than 1,000 lives on the Palestinian side and more than 300 on the Israeli side.

In Wednesday's fighting, Israeli forces shelled Palestinian targets by land, air and sea in retaliation for a Palestinian rocket attack on an Israeli town. Seven Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's broad-based coalition government has so far survived the daily turbulence endemic to Israeli politics, but with the violence escalating, calls for the government's resignation are growing louder.

"A government that promised upon its establishment a year ago to stop terror, but only increased it, should resign," Sever Plotzker wrote in a front-page editorial in Yediot Ahronot, the country's largest-circulation daily. "A government that promised a year ago to bring peace closer, and only distanced it for generations, should resign."

Sharon has disappointed many Israelis with his inability to define exactly how he plans to end the violence. He urges Israelis to remain resolute and be prepared to make sacrifices. In the past few days, he has said several times that military action will be intensified to a point the Palestinians can no longer endure.

"This will be an aggressive and continuous campaign without letup," Sharon said during a visit with soldiers at a roadblock Wednesday. "And when the other side understands that it can't achieve anything through terror, it will be easier to enter negotiations."

Sharon, 73, has been at the center of the Israeli-Arab conflict as a soldier and politician since Israel's 1948 war of independence, and his name stirs anger throughout the Arab world.

Among Israelis, he is a polarizing figure, though Israeli voters turned to him in overwhelming numbers last year after the violence erupted. With peace talks collapsed, Sharon was seen by many as the leader best equipped to safeguard Israel.

But during the first five months of the Palestinian uprising, when Ehud Barak was prime minister, Israelis were being killed at a rate of 13 a month. The rate has averaged 21 deaths a month during Sharon's year in office.

Israelis direct their anger over the violence at the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat's leadership. Palestinians, meanwhile, say Sharon is bent on crushing them militarily and they hold out no hope of negotiating peace with him.

"This government is determined to assassinate any chance for peace or hope in the Middle East," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Wednesday. "War is what this criminal government thrives on and peace shall bring its demise."

Despite Israel's military superiority, the army has not been able to stop, or even reduce attacks by Palestinian militants, and Sharon's public support fell below 50 percent for the first time, the Maariv newspaper reported last week.

With Palestinian militants carrying out bombings and shooting attacks over the past week, Israel responded as it often has, with air strikes at Palestinian police and security offices to drive home the message that it holds Arafat ultimately responsible.

Yet so many Palestinian security buildings have been flattened that the F-16 warplanes and Apache helicopters find themselves bombing targets that have already been reduced to rubble and abandoned by security forces.

After a bombing raid Tuesday night, the army issued a statement saying it had successfully struck a target next to Arafat's villa in Gaza City — a parking lot.

Despite Sharon's problems, Israeli political analyst Gerald Steinberg credits him with keeping his government and Israeli society from fracturing during the crisis. "Despite great difficulties, he has managed to hold the Israeli public together," Steinberg said.

Sharon has also received strong backing from the United States, evidenced by his four visits to see President Bush in the White House, while the Americans have repeatedly scolded Arafat, saying he must do more to stop terrorism.

Israeli elections are not required until the middle of next year, though Israeli governments are always just a crisis away from breaking up. The moderate Labor Party, the largest faction, planned a Thursday meeting to debate its continued participation in the coalition.

If the government falters, Sharon's strongest challenge will come from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a member of his own right-wing Likud party.

Netanyahu, who has been at the top of recent opinion polls, has been calling for even tougher action to bring down the Palestinian Authority, and says Arafat should be driven not only from power, but also from the region.

"I would very much like to see (Arafat) have a happy retirement with his friends from Tripoli, with his friends from Baghdad," Netanyahu said in a recent interview.