The peace conference will convene on August 30, 2004 in Madison Square Garden, New York, and will last four days, under the leadership of George Walker Bush. It won't be an Israeli-Palestinian conference, of the kind that failed under Bush's predecessor, but an internal American gathering - the convention of the Republican Party - which will nominate Bush again as its candidate for president of the United States.

The great achievement that Bush wants to celebrate at the convention, on the waves of which he will surf in the following months, until the November elections, is a new regional order in the Middle East, local democracy and reconciliation between enemies. Events that will be cited will include, of course, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, from the ashes of which the American spirit recovered and went over to the offensive. In Bush's cap will be two colorful feathers (three, counting Afghanistan): Iraq, which is returning to the rule of its citizens, and the new Palestine, semi-independent, which has ceased to attack its neighbor, Israel.

It is to this end, of assisting President Bush in return for his support of Israeli policy, that the ideas now being kicked about in the vicinity of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are aimed. The timing reflects a sense of distress. An earlier feeling - according to which the police and the State Prosecutor's Office were blocked by the defense of the Sharon version in the case of his ties with the contractor-businessman David Appel - has given way to a gloomy evaluation that a genuine danger of indictment indeed hangs above Sharon's head. Charges of bribe-taking, fraud or breach of trust will force him to resign immediately, and not even a declaration that he is ready to turn Sycamore Ranch into a day camp for the children of the Nuseirat refugee camp will be of any help.

But if he escapes the charges by the skin of his teeth, in the form of a decision that there is insufficient evidence against him (as distinct from absence of guilt) and a harsh public report, Sharon will shift his battle to the arena of public opinion and the slogan "Shalom but not goodbye," meaning: Don't be so foolish as to part with me now, of all times, when I am finally leading the country to a settlement with the Palestinians, a settlement that only I can bring about.

The political crisis that will be fomented by an indictment against Sharon (as well as against others in the top ranks of the government or the Knesset), or by petitions to the High Court of Justice against the judgment of those who decided not to submit an indictment, will occur concurrently during the first weeks of the realization of Sharon's declaration of the independence of Palestine. That declaration, which may or may not be made on December 18, at the Herzliya Conference, is likely to contain, implicitly or explicitly, the following points:

*Israel agrees to the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state within the framework of a long-term interim agreement.

*Target date: August 2004.

*Palestine will be a member of the United Nations and will have attributes of sovereignty such as an anthem, a symbol and a flag.

*It will be demilitarized, its security to be based on a police force, security services and a border patrol.

*Its provisional borders will be congruent, by and large, with Areas A and B of the Palestinian Authority.

*The land boundaries of contact, the Gaza coast and the airspace of Palestine will be under Israeli control.

*A separate access route (a bridge or an immersed road, another name for "safe passage") will be arranged between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

*All the civilian settlements in the Gaza Strip will be evacuated apart from the coastal settlements in the northwest; five to seven isolated settlements in the West Bank will also be evacuated.

*In the first screening in the Sharon cinema, the film of the civilianization of the Nahal military villages in the 1960s, '70s and '80s will be run backward. In this reverse screening, the settlements will become military outposts again, with forces stationed at them - after the sites are relocated - according to military needs and the considerations of the commanding officers.

*The internal checkpoints in the West Bank will be removed (Central Command's plan) and the restrictions on movement in the Gaza Strip will be lifted, other than in military enclaves and in the area of the tunnels in Rafah.

*These moves will signal that "everything is reversible." On the one hand, anyone who claimed that the settlement project was irreversible, will be proved wrong; and, on the other hand, it will be shown that Palestinian assets, which were achieved by blood and toil, will disappear instantly if the attacks on Israel are renewed.

*The separation fence will continue to be built in proximity to the Green Line or around blocs of settlements (clusters), which Palestine, in the permanent settlement, may agree to have annexed to Israel in exchange for other territory.

*In the months ahead, until August, the Palestinian government will be comparable to someone taking driving lessons and awaiting the practical driving test. Even after the license is awarded, there will still be restrictions that apply to a "new driver."

*The transition from the provisional to the permanent situation will last for years - 5, 10, 15 - maybe more, maybe less, until the extinction of the generation of the desert, which refuses to accept an independent Israel in the 1967 boundaries. A possible index for such acceptance: a graduating high-school class in Palestine whose teachers refrained from inciting against Israel throughout its years in school.

It's clear to Sharon that cabinet ministers Avigdor Lieberman (National Union) and Effi Eitam (National Religious Party) will compete with each other in breaking speed records for resigning from the government; and that Shimon Peres, the chairman of the Labor Party, will be even faster in compensating for their loss. As a practical politician - irrespective of his worldview, which oscillates between the warnings of his mother to always be suspicious of Arabs, and his sons' pleas that he should adapt to the spirit of the time and place - the instinct of survival is leading Sharon to strive for a stable structure with him at the center, America above and the Labor Party alongside.

The cardinal tenet of Sharon's belief system is that there is no God but Bush, and Condoleezza Rice is his prophet. If David Ben-Gurion preached that Israel must not go to war without the support of a Great Power (in 1956 he erred in thinking that France and Britain were still Great Powers and could successfully provoke Washington), Sharon is careful not to move a finger without a nod of assent from Bush. To obtain internal agreement, especially of the soldiers in the regular army and the reserves, he needs the partnership of the Labor Party. That was the reason for his desire, in the previous Knesset, in which the Likud had fewer seats than Labor, to give the defense portfolio to Ehud Barak, and in his absence to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and again to Amram Mitzna, who missed a golden opportunity to influence the major statesmanship and the minor operations.

In large measure, the Israel Defense Forces is the progenitor of many of the points in the Sharon plan, though it also contains ideas that he himself has been espousing for years. To create a conditional Palestine, staff working in the strategic planning unit of the General Staff Planning Branch and in the international law unit of the Military Advocate General's Office, examined dozens of different models of limited sovereignty, from Puerto Rico to Austria and Germany under the occupation forces in the decade after World War II. None of those models is amenable to straightforward emulation.

The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, this week tried to erase the IDF imprimatur from the Sharon plan. Ya'alon's concern is that the military seal will entangle the IDF

in both of two possibilities: If the plan gains momentum and becomes the core of political controversy, like Oslo in the 1990s; or, if the opposite occurs and it turns out to be an empty shell and a desperate personal stratagem. Ya'alon wanted the army's encouragement for the political process to be a secret. Officers heard him support, implicitly, the evacuation of settlements, provided it's not done under fire, and offering his evaluation that the current move holds out the possibility of ending the current round - that began in September 2000 - of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

Ya'alon is a short-term optimist and a long-term pessimist. When he walks through the anteroom to his office and looks at the photographs of his 16 predecessors on the wall, he draws a trenchant conclusion: Not only will the Israeli-Arab conflict not end in the year and a half to two years that remain to him as chief of staff, but before it ends there will be photographs of 10 more chiefs of staff on the wall.

Maybe this is a passing mood. After all, the attitude toward Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) changed within the space of a month from a skeptical eulogy and his description as "treading water" to a gamble on his success in making progress. And the same people who declined to allow Mohammed Dahlan, the security chief under the former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), to operate slowly and politely against Hamas are now ready to let Qureia try. There will not be a "cease-fire," only a "cessation of terrorism," and it will hold up, apart from wildcat attacks, because Hamas will be eager for it to succeed.

That eagerness, the IDF explains, is due to the stinging memory of a recent offensive that would eventually erode the army's credibility when it turned out that the methods used in it were different from those that were reported in communiques issued by the IDF Spokesperson's Unit and in a briefing by the commander of the air force. Since the Yom Kippur War, there has been a reduction in the army's official lies, for fear it will be caught out, and especially as a last resort involving life-and-death matters, and intelligence sources, which comes to the same thing.

As chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, the current defense minister, created an operations branch and installed Major General Dan Halutz as its head and subordinated the IDF Spokesperson's Unit to it, on the grounds that it's essential to integrate considerations of publicity into operations. The experiment failed. Halutz had no understanding of what a spokesperson's unit does, and proved it when, after being appointed commander of the air force, he removed the force's media officer, whose sin lay in improving the press relations of the air force during the period of Halutz's predecessor, Eitan Ben Eliahu.

Halutz was succeeded at the operations branch by Major General Dan Harel, who was personally and directly responsible for the great failure of preventing the coverage of the battle of Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002. This past spring Harel moved to Southern Command and was succeeded at operations by a new major general, from the Gaza Division, Yisrael Ziv. Under him the failure became a debacle with the lie about the Nuseirat operation and the announcements of the IDF Spokesperson's Unit.

In June 1982, the air force made use of a weapon that until then was secret when it attacked the Syrian surface-to-air missile system in Lebanon at the outset of the Lebanon War. The operation was a perfect success, but the critics of the decision to use the secret methods argued that the surprise had been revealed prematurely and would be lacking when the IDF fought the big war against Syria - a war that has not yet happened in the intervening two decades and may have even been made less probable, because what was lost in surprise was gained in deterrence.

A similar debate, about other methods, ended with a victory for Ziv, who had then just arrived at the operations branch. His predecessor, Harel, was against making use of the methods. As a former chief artillery officer and commander of a northern division, Harel argued that such means, like the weapon of 1982, are meant to surprise the enemy in the big war, etc. Ziv and others thought that the important war is now under way, against the Palestinians, and that it was worth risking the exposure. Halutz, the contractor, didn't object and even suggested that the means be loaned to the Americans in their war in Iraq. If the means are exposed, he said, that will make it easier for Israel's military industry to sell them to foreign clients.

To blur the identity of the means and to reinforce a different impression, the operations branch conveyed to the IDF Spokesperson's Unit misleading information - even though the unit is part of the branch - as raw material for its communiques. A few members of the General Staff and a handful of officers in the operations section were privy to the secret about the wrong information. Others, who innocently took an interest, received misleading answers to their questions. The operation at Nuseirat was controlled from a special booth, not the usual control booth, and Halutz prepared two texts for reporting after the attack: one for general dissemination within the squadrons, the other for those who were in on the secret.

Ziv spared the IDF spokesperson, Ruth Yaron, the need to agonize over whether to take part in the deception or to stand her ground and thwart it. Without Ya'alon's knowledge, Ziv hid the information about the use of the means from Yaron. Another general, who was in on the secret, told her about it, and Ya'alon implored her not to resign.

The next struggle over the IDF's credibility and the army's place in the Israeli society can be expected if the political plan is translated into military activity, including - for the first time since Yamit, in the wake of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty - the evacuation of settlements. With Sharon's legal entanglement in the background, this could be a new type of movie, a mixed genre: half detective, half war.