Israelis back Sharon as Arafat appeals for international help

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Liav Tzioni, 27, was unmoved yesterday by the international pressure on Israel not to fulfil its threat to expel Yasser Arafat. This, after the double suicide bombing which killed 15 people last Tuesday at a bus stop at the Tzirifin military base and at a busy Jerusalem café.

In response to the UN's call not to move against Mr Arafat an Israeli government source declared: "If they tell us not to react after a big bomb, people here are going to say: 'fuck the sons of bitches.'"

Yet Mr Tzioni, enjoying a coffee at the Aroma Café, with his girlfriend, isn't some ultra-rightwing fanatic. Rather, like other secular Jews out in the city yesterday despite the Sabbath shutdown, he is true to the old pollsters' maxim that many Israelis are short-term hawks and long-term doves. He believes in two states with Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in peace.

When his parents and brother were badly wounded in a bombing nine years ago, he reacted by joining Peace Now. However, after army service, the collapse of the Oslo accords and three long years of the intifada, he is no longer in the peace movement.

Instead he mentions the deaths in the Café Hillel bombing of David Applebaum, the emergency room director at the Share Zadek medical centre, and his daughter Zava on the eve of her wedding. "How would you feel if that was your daughter?" He rejects international criticism of Ariel Sharon's systematic policy of "targeted killings" of Hamas militants, saying: "I believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." In this Mr Tzioni is squarely in the majority of Israeli electors. For despite the widespread criticism that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security policy is not working, public support remains strong.

Even with muted opposition from the US and strong criticisms from moderate Arab leaders of the failed attempt on the life of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza last weekend, a poll taken before the suicide bombings showed that 68 per cent of Israelis believed that the attack on him was right. Despite the vengeance that followed, 59 per cent thought it should be tried again. They are less sure about expelling Mr Arafat with between 28 and 38 per cent in favour.

Nevertheless 18 per cent - including an admittedly hesitant Mr Tzioni - are in favour of assassinating him. Hanan Pinhas, a 22-year-old who runs a tobacco and confectionery kiosk across the road from Aroma, holds views in line with the Israeli majority on the Sharon security policy. He says he came to understand something of the burning sense of injustice among Palestinians much better during his just completed army service in Gaza and the West Bank. He was disappointed when Mahmoud Abbas resigned as Palestinian Prime Minister because he had high hopes that it could lead to a settlement.

He is against the expulsion of Mr Arafat because "it will just make him more popular". But Mr Pinhas, whose uncle was killed in a suicide bombing, adds that "we don't have anything else" apart from a policy of targeting militants which he says cautiously will "maybe" slow them down. Acknowledging that for every dead Hamas militant there are several ready to take their place, he adds: "What do you want - that we just sit back and take it?" Most typical of all, perhaps, is that Mr Pinhas sees noend to the cycle of killings and absence of political dialogue.

Yesterday, as Mr Arafat appealed to the international community to stop Israel from moving against him, the cycle continued. An old Palestinian man was shot dead in the West Bank city of Nablus, and Israeli police said they had foiled another suicide attack in east Jerusalem. Now Palestinians and Israelis alike wait to see what Mr Sharon's response will be and what retaliation it may provoke.

Against this bleak background perhaps the nearest thing to optimism that could be found among Israelis came from 62-year-old ex-paratrooper Menachem Tal. Even though he voted for Mr Sharon, his hero was Yitzhak Rabin. Yes, he said, it was true that the Rabin tendency, let alone the peace-oriented Israeli left, had been marginalised during the last three years. "But that's temporary," he added. In Israeli politics, temporary can be a very long time indeed.