'THE END OF DREAMS'

Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv first tried to kill Sheik Ahmed Yassin last September. He remembers the day well, and with some regret. As Israel's chief of military operations, Ziv had ordered an airstrike on the three-story building in Gaza City where the Hamas spiritual leader was meeting with his inner circle. Huddled with other Israeli commanders around a screen that displayed real-time satellite imagery, Ziv watched as an F-16 jet unloaded a 250-kilogram bomb on the target. Ziv was worried; at the last minute he had reduced the size of the bomb by half, hoping to lower the chance of civilian deaths. "We saw in a few seconds that people were pouring out through the smoke," Ziv told NEWSWEEK, still rueful that he hadn't used a bigger bomb. "We learned very soon that Yassin had survived." Six months after that, an Israeli missile blew Yassin apart as he left a mosque following dawn prayers, and Ziv was one of the first to be informed.

Last Saturday, Ziv and his colleagues were back in action. Hours after a suicide bomber killed himself and an Israeli policeman near the Gaza border, Israel moved to eliminate Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, the new Hamas leader in the area. An Israeli helicopter fired two missiles at Rantisi's car, destroying it; he was later pronounced dead at a hospital. Even some prominent Israeli doves supported the hit. "Whoever deals with murder will pay the price and it will lead to his own death," former prime minister Shimon Peres told Israeli TV. Hamas quickly vowed revenge.

Ziv, 47, has become a point man in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stark new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having judged that a negotiated peace with the Palestinians is impossible, Sharon now seems intent on achieving a different goal: a manageable war. As he's outlined in recent weeks, Sharon plans to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements. He'll keep six major settlement blocs, sealing off both Israel and those enclaves behind security fences--and use Israel's assassination squads to strike out against the leaders of any lingering resistance. Last week, in a stunning departure from U.S. policy, President George W. Bush endorsed the broad outlines of Sharon's initiative, declaring that that it was "unrealistic" to expect that Israel would withdraw to its 1967 boundaries and agreeing with Sharon that Palestinian refugees be resettled only in a Palestinian state. Bush called Sharon's limited withdrawals "historic and courageous actions" that "can put an end to one of the world's longest-running conflicts."

The Sharon-Bush deal could also achieve the opposite. The two leaders have taken a big detour from the "Roadmap," a three-stage plan drafted by the United States and three partners--Russia, the European Union and the United Nations (graphic). The new initiative effectively cuts the Palestinians out of the negotiations, and it deprives them of future bargaining chips such as the "right of return" for refugees. For the foreseeable future, the Palestinians will be left with control over Gaza--but not its borders or airspace--and isolated patches of territory in the occupied West Bank.

U.S. administration officials insisted that the new plan was only a step toward a permanent peace, still to be negotiated. But Palestinian leaders called Bush's endorsement a betrayal, and Sharon seemed to agree that it could only be regarded as an Israeli triumph. "The Palestinians understand that this plan is... the end of their dreams," Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz before traveling to Washington. In another candid interview with the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, he said, "In the unilateral plan, there is no Palestinian state. This situation could continue for many years."

Sharon believes that he can keep a lid on Palestinian violence. The 375-mile line of fences and walls that Israel is building inside the West Bank has made it increasingly difficult for would-be suicide bombers to cross the Green Line. Since January there have been only four successful suicide bombings inside Israel. (By contrast, 19 suicide bombers struck Israel during March 2002, the worst month of the intifada.) Sharon's targeted killings of Palestinians--"surgical operations," as Israel commanders prefer to call them--have also impaired the militants' capabilities. "Hamas is really under siege," says a Palestinian journalist in regular contact with Hamas's military wing. "Israel is terrifying them, paralyzing the leadership."

Sharon's war is now in the hands of men such as Ziv, an affable, veteran paratrooper and the former head of Israel's Gaza Division. Ziv is one of a handful of major generals who debate moral, logistical and legal issues before each targeted killing. Every assassination must be approved by military Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon--and, if the target is considered important enough, by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Sharon himself. Ziv insists that targeted killings are carried out only as a "last resort." Last June, Ziv and his team set their sights on Abdullah Kawasmeh, commander of Hamas's military wing in Hebron, who had recruited a half dozen young men to kill more than 10 Israelis in suicide attacks. The Israeli Army initially hoped to seize and interrogate Kawasmeh, says Ziv, "but we learned [through informants] that Kawasmeh always wore an explosive belt, so we couldn't arrest him." An Israeli elite unit shot him dead as he left evening prayers at a neighborhood mosque.

Israeli critics of the relentless killing campaign worry that Hamas is preparing a "spectacular" attack, and believe the long- term effect of such an assassination policy will be counterproductive. "If you're doing [these killings] without a political solution, without creating an alternative vision or a sense of hope, you are going to lose," says Ami Ayalon, a former director of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency. In the short term, anyway, the Palestinians have been deprived of hope--and Ariel Sharon has emerged as the clear winner.