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Israelis From Left and Right Criticize Sharon

By Lee Hockstader, Washington Post,
Saturday 23 February 2002; Page A12

JERUSALEM, Feb. 22—At the end of one of the bloodiest weeks in the 17-month-old Palestinian uprising, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came under scathing attack today from hard-liners and doves alike. His once-formidable popularity plummeted in new opinion polls despite a televised address designed to rally Israelis for a prolonged struggle against the Palestinians.

In a speech on Thursday, Sharon proposed buffer zones to separate Israeli and Palestinian areas and protect Israelis against further violence and terrorist attacks. But his main message was an appeal to Israelis to hold firm despite the bloodshed.

Peace advocates said the address was full of empty rhetoric and devoid of new ideas. Hard-liners and Jewish settlers said Sharon was doing nothing to root out terrorism. And Palestinians said the Israeli leader's vision was a recipe for endless fighting.

The overall impression was that a speech intended to soothe an increasingly dejected Israeli public did nothing of the kind, and may have reinforced broad concerns here that Sharon has no plan to end the most lethal fighting Israel has faced in a generation.

What we wanted to hear was . . . how Sharon intends to achieve calm, wrote Sima Kadmon in the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper. Sharon has no answers to that question.

Another newspaper commentator who reviewed Sharon's speech, Yoel Marcus of Haaretz, called the Israeli leader the lion that meowed.

Jewish settlers were also disappointed with what they called the continuation of a toothless policy. The Palestinian Authority is the world's largest terrorist organization around today, said Ezra Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the main council of Jewish settlers. We are expecting Sharon to take a more active stance, a more extreme stance, on fighting terrorism.

A new poll published by Yedioth Aharonoth showed 54 percent of Israelis responding judged Sharon to be a credible prime minister, down from 70 percent in December. Only 38 percent approved of his handling of the Palestinian uprising.

The poll suggested Sharon is increasingly vulnerable to a challenge within his own Likud Party from the hard-line former prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has given increasingly critical speeches and interviews urging that Yasser Arafat's eight-year-old Palestinian Authority be overthrown, a course that Sharon has rejected.

Instead, in two sentences midway through his speech, Sharon said the government would erect buffer zones to achieve security separation between Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled territory. His aides said the zones might be up to a half-mile wide and 120 miles long and could include deep trenches and electronic sensors to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel.

Palestinians said the buffer plan would increase the misery of ordinary Palestinians, depriving them of their land, further restricting their movements and limiting their job prospects. We consider it an escalation in the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, said Saeb Erekat, a moderate Palestinian cabinet minister.

However, there was no immediate word on where the buffers would be built, how long it would take to build them and how much more land would have to be confiscated from Palestinians. Moreover, Sharon's aides made it clear that none of the 150 or so Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be removed under the plan, meaning that 200,000 Israeli settlers would still live among more than 2 million Palestinians.

The plan's shortcomings were highlighted this morning when a Palestinian walked into an Israeli grocery store in the West Bank settlement of Efrat and tried to blow himself up. The bomb apparently misfired, and the Palestinian, who worked in a settlement and had not been considered a security risk, was shot dead by an Israeli customer.

A buffer would not have solved that problem at all, said Rosenfeld, the settlers' spokesman.