NEW YORK — Talk about confusing.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may have a strategy, but in a week that has seen dizzying numbers of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, many are left scratching their heads trying to figure out what Sharon is up to.
His government is an uneasy coalition of left and right voicing their competing demands, and his seemingly contradictory words and actions reflect some of those competing forces.
Moreover, Sharon has to be alert to international reaction — particularly what emanates from Washington, where officials are concerned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could hamper efforts to build a strong coalition for the global war on terror.
Put all these pressures together and you may get a glimpse into why Sharon bobs and weaves like a consummate politician-prizefighter.
Last week, for example, Sharon announced that pummeling the Palestinians militarily is the only way to bring them back to the negotiating table.
He accompanied the words with a massive anti-terror operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
These developments elicited a statement of concern from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wondered before a congressional committee last week whether Sharon's policy would "lead us anywhere."
The next day, President Bush announced that he was sending his Middle East envoy, Anthony Zinni, back to the region this week.
A day after that, Sharon made the first of two stunning about-faces: He announced over the weekend that he would no longer demand seven days of calm before launching cease-fire talks with the Palestinians.
Dismissing an outcry from his right flank that he was reversing his long-standing policy of not negotiating under fire, Sharon said he was acting out of national responsibility — and from the realization that seven days of quiet are currently unachievable.
On Sunday, the second shoe dropped when Sharon said he was willing to release Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who has been under virtual house arrest since December.
Sharon said Arafat had fulfilled Israel's demands by arresting all those who allegedly killed Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi last October.
"This is not capitulation," Sharon added. "We stuck to our demands, and they were met."
Political observers viewed the two concessions as an attempt by Sharon to smooth the way for a resumption of diplomacy.
But just as suddenly, Sharon authorized the Israel Defense Force to step up its operations this week in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza.
Military officials said the IDF captured dozens of "hardcore terrorists" in the operations, which also netted untold amounts of weapons and explosives.
The international community, however, noticed something else: the steadily mounting number of Palestinian casualties.
Last Friday alone, more than 30 Palestinians were killed during Israeli raids on villages and refugee camps. On Monday, at least 12 Palestinians were killed during an IDF operation in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza.
On Tuesday, that toll increased after the IDF launched a major operation in Ramallah, where 32 Palestinians were reported killed and scores wounded. On Wednesday, an Israeli soldier, 21-year-old Lt. Gil Badihi, died of injuries sustained in a gun battle near Ramallah. Also on Wednesday, Italian journalist Raffaele Ciriello was killed in Ramallah. Israeli officials said they were investigating whether Israeli or Palestinian fire caused his death.
Israelis, already reeling from an unrelenting wave of suicide bombings and shooting sprees, braced for more.
So which is it? Sharon the peacemaker who wants a cease-fire, or Sharon the general who wants another military victory?
In a move that reflects the pressures Sharon has faced from within his coalition, two Israeli Cabinet ministers submitted their resignations on Tuesday.
As far as they were concerned — based on the two concessions Sharon had made over the weekend — Sharon had gone soft on the Palestinians.
Tourism Minister Binyamin Elon and National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman specifically cited Sharon's announcement that he was freeing Arafat to travel from his Ramallah headquarters.
The resignations, which were to go into effect later in the week, mean Sharon will now have to rely on the support of the Labor Party and the fervently Orthodox Shas Party to stay in power until the next round of elections are held late next year.
For its part, the Labor Party has been debating whether Sharon had gone too far in his military reprisals against the Palestinians.
But last week, the party's leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, got party members to agree not to leave the government during this period of national emergency.
While many can only guess what Sharon's strategy truly is, all would agree that the country is in a state of emergency.
Witness the following casualties:
*Tuesday: Six Israelis were killed and seven wounded while traveling close to the Lebanese border. The six were shot by terrorists who opened fire on vehicles traveling a highway in the Western Galilee. In another incident that day, one Israeli was killed and another moderately wounded in a shooting attack near a West Bank settlement.
*Sunday: One Israeli was killed and another wounded in a shooting attack at the Gaza settlement of Netzarim. The gunman arrived at the gate used by workers to enter the settlement and opened fire with a pistol. Also that day, a 12-year-old Israeli was seriously wounded in a Palestinian shooting attack at a bar mitzvah in Ashdod. Police apprehended the gunman, who fled the scene after his gun jammed.
*Saturday: Thirteen Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Netanya. In the Jerusalem attack, 11 Israelis were killed and at least 54 injured in a suicide bombing at the popular Moment Cafe. In the Netanya attack, two Palestinian terrorists shot dead two Israelis and injured about 50. An Israeli civilian also was killed in the crossfire between police and the terrorists.
These attacks came fast on the heels of another attack March 7, when five Israeli teenagers were killed and 23 others wounded by a Palestinian terrorist in a Gaza settlement. The five were killed when the terrorist cut through fences into the settlement, opened fire and threw grenades.
Israeli officials cited the dizzying pace of attacks on Israelis when explaining the IDF operations against the Palestinians.
These operations prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to lash out against Israel during a speech Tuesday before the Security Council, where he called on the Jewish state to end its "illegal occupation" of Palestinian lands.
Annan also said the actions of the IDF "gravely erode Israel's standing in the international community."
At the same time, however, Annan also took cognizance of the Israeli death toll.
He added that the number of fatalities on both sides had soared to appalling levels, and urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to "lead your peoples away from disaster."
As Israeli officials try to avert disaster, some argue that Sharon has no real strategy and is just playing it from day to day.
Others say his strategy is to remain perpetually unpredictable and that this keeps the Palestinian leadership off balance.
As the seemingly interminable violence continues, according to this group, inscrutablity is a definite asset.