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Sharon loses again

Back when he was a general, Ariel Sharon was often criticized as a bold but unreliable leader _ a man who took big leaps without knowing where he would land. That kind of adventurism is dangerous enough if you're commanding troops, but it's close to unforgivable if you're responsible for the security of an entire nation.

Twice in the past 20 years Sharon has gambled with Israel's security and come up a loser. Each time the reason was essentially the same. He thought the explosive application of force would demoralize and overpower his enemies _ and intimidate them into submission. Both times, the "strategy" failed and Sharon was left without any backup plan _ other than waiting for a diplomatic rescue from the United States.

Sharon's first tragic failure was in Lebanon in the summer of 1982. He believed that a quick blitz by Israeli air and ground forces would drive the PLO from Beirut. But the PLO dug in and held its ground, forcing Sharon into a siege of the Lebanese capital that was politically disastrous for the Israelis _ and ended only when the United States intervened with a diplomatic plan to get Yasser Arafat and his men out of Beirut.

Sharon's second failure has unfolded over the past year, in his struggle as Israeli prime minister to crush the new Palestinian intifada. The Palestinian uprising was the collective equivalent of a suicide bomb, and Sharon had few good options. But the approach he chose had the same flawed logic as America's policy of "gradual escalation" in Vietnam _ the idea that the enemy's will can be broken by a little more force, and a little more, and a little more . . .

As in Lebanon, Sharon appears to have leapt into this military campaign without knowing where he would land. In that sense, he didn't really have a strategy _ more a hope that he could bull his way through. But it hasn't worked, and Sharon now appears to be moving toward accepting a U.S. diplomatic initiative to resolve the conflict.

The disastrous effects of Sharon's policy for Israel were made clear in a recent article by James Bennet in the New York Times. He noted that far from intimidating the Palestinians into submission, Sharon's gradual escalation tactics have pushed them to a higher level of violence. Looking at this terrible human tragedy in cold analytical terms, Bennet wrote that the death ratio had risen from one Israeli for every 25 Palestinians during the first intifada 15 years ago to one Israeli for every three Palestinians in the current uprising.

The retort from Sharon and his defenders, in 1982 and now, is that their policies would succeed if they were allowed an "iron fist" that could truly break the will of the enemy. "Now they have to be hit," Sharon said earlier this month. "We have to cause them heavy casualties, and then they'll know they can't keep using terror and win political achievements."

Yet the horrific violence against Israel continues. Thursday it was a suicide bomber in the main shopping area of Jerusalem, killing three other persons and wounding more than 40. The day before, it was a suicide bomber on a bus, killing seven Israelis.

Even Sharon seems to recognize that this cycle of bombing and retaliation is not an effective strategy. He does not want to turn the superbly professional Israeli army into a crude killing machine, nor does he want to create an Israeli version of the "Hama" massacre that crushed resistance to Hafez Assad's regime in Syria in 1982. This approach would be unacceptable for Israel, politically and morally. And yet without such an iron hand, the Palestinian violence escalates.

That Sharon is failing should not surprise students of military history. For one clear lesson of modern warfare is that attempts to intimidate civilian populations into surrender rarely succeed. That's because, rather than breaking the will of the enemy, these campaigns tend to strengthen it _ and to encourage people to rally around their existing leadership, no matter how misguided it may be.

Perhaps that is the worst outcome of Sharon's policy: Rather than intimidating Palestinians, he has convinced them of the brutal logic of the body count.

David Ignatius is executive editor of the International Herald-Tribune in Paris.

Washington Post