Amid the worst spasm of violence in the Middle East in decades, Palestinians suddenly appear to have gained a critical advantage in their grim battle with Israel.
The Palestinians can't defeat their foe militarily, but they are pushing both Israel and the United States to a crossroads at which they will have to choose between starkly different paths out of the carnage.
The most recent round of suicide bombings and brutal Israeli reprisals has made one thing clear to many Israelis: Palestinian militants aren't giving up, regardless of the military might Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brings to bear on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the roughly 3-million Palestinian residents of the quasi-independent West Bank and Gaza.
Over 17 months of fighting, that Palestinian message has been delivered by self-styled "martyrs" exploding themselves on buses, outside synagogues and in pizza parlors; gunmen shooting Jewish drivers; and faceless fighters who lob missiles into Jewish neighborhoods. Thursday, Israel pressed its campaign of intense strikes throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, conducting sweeps in refugee camps and killing 12 Palestinians. A Palestinian suicide bomber attacked a West Bank settlement, while two other bombing attempts were foiled. The total fatalities on both sides in the past two weeks alone is close to 200 _ the bloodiest period since the violence erupted in September 2000.
In a gruesome way, Palestinians are succeeding on several fronts. They are convincing many in Israel that the status quo _ military containment of the increasingly violent Palestinian territories _ simply isn't acceptable. The Palestinians are forcing themselves back to the center of the international stage after being shoved into the wings by President Bush's war on terrorism. And they are slowly creating conditions under which the United States may feel compelled to get reinvolved in the search for a resolution. Palestinian leaders have always considered U.S. pressure to be crucial in achieving their twin goals of full statehood and the right for Palestinian refugees to return to land they say was taken away when Israel was founded 53 years ago.
For Israelis, two starkly different potential responses are emerging from the chaos. Down one path _ advocated most avidly by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like to supplant Sharon _ Israel would expel Arafat and simply destroy his Palestinian Authority.
Down the other path lies a peace initiative put forward by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and seized upon by others in the Arab world. It proposes that Israel withdraw from territories it occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in return for full recognition by the entire Arab world.
The difficulty of crushing Palestinian militants has convinced Shlomi Lasri, a resident of the city of Be'er Sheva in the south, that a peaceful settlement is the only solution. A 34-year-old driver and part-time production assistant at an Israeli TV station, Larsi isn't politically active. But his views are increasingly typical of Israelis too young to have been aware firsthand of the series of wars from the late 1940s through the early 1970s in which Sharon served. "There are bombs everywhere, every day," says Lasri. "We have to give the Palestinians some of their own land."
For its part, the Bush administration has been trying for more than a year to avoid the sort of stark choices Israelis now face. But U.S. officials privately acknowledge that they, too, may be unable to escape a decision about which path they want to see taken.
President Bush said Thursday that he was sending Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni to the troubled region next week in hopes of halting widening violence. And Vice President Dick Cheney leaves over the weekend for an 11-day trip to the Middle East, including stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Wednesday that the United States may be moving toward a tougher public line against Israeli reprisals. "If you declare war against the Palestinians thinking that you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed, I don't know that that leads us anywhere," he told a congressional subcommittee. But on Thursday, Powell eased back from his rebuke and said Sharon was "reasonable" in wanting to reduce violence before making peace moves.
Whatever direction the United States chooses, it is now beyond debate that Sharon's approach _ pounding Arafat's power base, while stopping short of destroying it _ isn't working.
The Palestinian attacks have been condemned by many countries around the world. But Israel's harsh reprisals _ blows that have left 123 Palestinians dead in just the past two weeks _ have brought international criticism as well. The Israeli counterattacks have also fanned fears among Israelis that the tit-for-tat exchanges are spiraling out of control.
In Israel, that's beginning to undermine Sharon's control over his delicately balanced coalition. His popularity has deteriorated sharply. Only 42 percent of those polled in recent days by Ma'ariv, an Israeli newspaper, praised his overall leadership, compared with 57 percent in mid January.
Signs of Israeli disenchantment are everywhere. In cafes and restaurants, customers fret loudly that the country is slipping toward out-and-out war _ something Sharon has pledged he won't allow. Peace activists, mostly silent over the past year, are staging public protests. A new bumper sticker that made the rounds at a peace rally last month in Tel Aviv declared, "Sharon Has No Solution." Even within the military, a growing number of army reservists are refusing to serve in Palestinian territories.
Fissures are emerging within Sharon's cabinet. Members of the more liberal Labor party who occupy critical cabinet seats _ including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer _ are starting to break publicly with Sharon over his policy of applying relentless pressure on Arafat.
Sharon argues that Israel must strengthen its security by setting up "buffer zones" protected by fences and trenches throughout the West Bank and Gaza areas. Only this, Sharon says, will slow the flood of suicide bombers and armed Palestinians entering Israel each day.
But many Israelis say that short of a total, permanent military occupation, their country couldn't impose its will along the convoluted lines that divide Palestinian turf from Israel proper and from the scores of Israeli settlements within the West Bank and Gaza. Thousands of Palestinians enter Israel each day, the vast majority of whom are merely in search of work.
Odeh Toppasi, a 29-year-old Palestinian father of four, is officially barred from entering Jerusalem because his work permit _ like those of most other Palestinians _ was revoked in late 2000, when the current round of fighting began. But that hasn't stopped Toppasi and dozens of others from his West Bank village of Al-Reehyeh from finding their way into Israel's capital each day in search of work, even now, amid tight security.
Toppasi says Israel's checkpoints only make his life more difficult, forcing him to use unguarded trails and hilltop paths that snake through the West Bank landscape. These routes are also open to would-be suicide bombers and gunmen trying to sneak into Jerusalem and other cities.
"The soldiers can't really stop us," Toppasi said one recent morning while waiting near the old bus station in East Jerusalem, where Israelis go to look for day laborers. The Israeli police typically turn a blind eye to the illegal labor market.
Most Israelis recognize they cannot merely rid themselves of the Palestinians. Menachem Feder, a 40-year-old law-firm partner in Tel Aviv, reflects the views of many of his generation when he says both Sharon and Arafat are locked into a "yesterday mentality." The lawyer adds: "The formula for peace has become clear _ it's compromise. The question is if the political leadership on both sides have the will to do it."
Sharon's most immediate political threat comes from the right: Netanyahu, a conservative former prime minister and fellow Likud Party member, is gearing up to challenge Sharon for the premier's seat, perhaps as soon as later this year. In an interview, Netanyahu says that, if elected, he would topple Arafat's Palestinian Authority and resist demands for Palestinian nationhood. "The job of stopping terrorism is to stop the regime" supporting it, Netanyahu says.
He may find support from people like Menachem Goldberg, 40, who lives in the Galilee region in northern Israel. An observant Jew with six children, Goldberg runs a tourist site outside of Nazareth, where he grinds olives for oil and grows wheat for pita bread. He teaches visiting Israelis what life was like for Jews 2,000 years ago _ and pushes the idea that they have returned to their "promised land." Dressed in blue jeans and a keffiyeh, the white headdress traditional in the area, he says peace won't come by trading away land Israel now controls. "How can we give up something that is ours?" he asks.
Many Israelis who once voted for liberal candidates say they no longer trust Labor politicians to stop Palestinian attacks. As these people embrace tougher responses to Palestinian violence, there are signs of a revival of Israeli extremist groups that have complicated previous attempts at peace. Earlier this week, a group calling itself the Avengers of Infants claimed responsibility for placing a bomb in an Arab schoolyard just outside Jerusalem. The explosion caused numerous injuries but no deaths.
In this maelstrom, the tantalizing Saudi peace plan _ still vague _ provides at least a potential path back toward diplomacy. The Saudis have effectively linked a resolution of the Palestinians' plight to any broader U.S. aims in the region, such as gaining Arab support for deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In a sign of building Bush administration enthusiasm for the Saudi idea, Secretary of State Powell earlier this week called the land-for-peace initiative "a vision that we will all have to examine, and hopefully it's a vision that all Arab nations and Israel will look at." President Bush has welcomed a series of Arab leaders to the White House for talks in recent days.
Just months ago, Bush was adamant in his verbal support for Sharon and disdain for Arafat _ a man Bush considers untrustworthy, according to administration officials. The Bush team's more recent statements and gestures suggest it is pondering a break from its previous policy of abstaining from active intervention in Israeli-Palestinian problems as long as the violence rages.
The United States has been lukewarm to an Egyptian proposal for a summit meeting between Sharon and Arafat, two battle-hardened veterans with a shared history stretching back to the war they fought in Lebanon nearly two decades ago. Sharon so far has publicly vowed not to meet with the Palestinian leader until the violence ends.
As U.S. officials publicly urge Sharon to restrain his military reprisals against the Palestinians, they are privately asking him to lift a three-month travel ban on Arafat that has been enforced by Israeli tanks in Ramallah. The United States wants Arafat to be able to travel to an Arab League meeting later this month in Beirut, where the Saudi plan is expected to be discussed.
Still, it's far from clear that the Saudi formula offers a way out. It lacks specifics and seems to offer a solution that in broad terms has been available since 1967. For the plan to work, Israel would need to relinquish control of not just the West Bank and Gaza territories, but also the strategically important Golan Heights, which it took from Syria in 1967.
Prince Abdullah's plan also probably would require Israel to hand over part of Jerusalem _ the religious capital for Arabs, Jews and Christians alike _ to Palestinian administrators. And further complicating the mix, there would need to be an agreement on how to deal with as many as 3.5-million Palestinian refugees _ those who fled the region during the war sparked by the creation of Israel in 1948, and their descendants. The Palestinian claim to a "right of return" has posed a major sticking point in previous negotiations.
These concessions would test the unity of a country built on the singular purpose of Jewish self-preservation.
Yet in return, Israel could obtain something it has long craved: unambiguous recognition of its right to exist. That recognition would allow Israel to establish embassies in Arab states and slowly create relationships at Arab universities and other institutions _ a process some Israeli government officials say could provide the cornerstones for lasting peace.