On Sunday, the IDF General Staff knew that Yasser Arafat was very sick. "It's not the flu," said those who are supposed to know what is happening in the Muqata. And someone noted that it was strange that a gynecologist - MK Ahmed Tibi - was the one to be reporting to the Israeli public about Arafat's medical condition. Thursday, as reports about the seriousness of his illness continued to proliferate, top government officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were hesitant to speak with any certainty about Arafat's condition, but the assessment was that his end is near.

Needless to say, no one in the Israeli government will mourn Arafat's passing. The Palestinian leader is perceived as the embodiment of evil - a demon whose life's mission was to destroy the State of Israel. After getting to know Arafat in face-to-face meetings following the Oslo accords, the Israeli leadership became convinced that the man is not an interlocutor for an agreement because he is driven by an obsession to establish a Palestinian state in blood and fire, on the ruins of the State of Israel.

Major General (ret.) Amos Gilad is one of the main proponents of this diagnosis, and most of the heads of Military Intelligence and chiefs of staff over the past decade shared this assessment. On Thursday, the top IDF echelon began to ask itself whether Arafat is a transitory person, whose worldview will not outlast his death, or whether he is an ethos.

The IDF and the current government are operating according to the assumption that Israel's attempts to encourage the Palestinians to establish independence in part of the Land of Israel and to act like a civilized state have failed. This is how the Israeli leadership of recent years (Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon) has interpreted Arafat's responses to the peace accords discussed between the two sides, including the generous (from Israel's perspective) peace offer presented to Arafat at Camp David in July 2000. This is a one-sided vision, of course, which contains an element of self-fulfilling prophecy. But it has shaped the thinking of decision-makers in Israel when formulating their approach to the Palestinians.

Key officials in Jerusalem said Thursday that after Arafat's death, Israel would have to examine whether his attitude toward the conflict has also expired or whether he has left an ideological and political legacy that will guide his successors. The Israeli government has acted so far in accordance with the assessment that any efforts made within the top ranks of the Palestinian Authority to shift to a different path have been brutally thwarted by Arafat. This is how Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have interpreted what happened to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and, subsequently, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) as prime minister, as well as the fate of other public figures who dared to disagree with him. (Nabil Amr lost a leg as a result of an attack against him.) The Israeli leadership sees the miserable situation of Palestinians in the territories in the same context of widespread anarchy and corruption that is directed to a large extent by Arafat.

Israel's first test for Arafat's successor will be the extent of his ability to establish his authority and eradicate the internal chaos that is approaching the scope of civil war. If such a leader emerges, Israel will propose negotiations, but only if he meets the first condition stipulated in the road map - eradicating the terrorist infrastructure. Arafat's death will indeed stir the Israeli government to reassess the assumption it has followed until now - that there is no partner. The death of Arafat is also likely to bring the road map out of the formaldehyde.

Disengagement to go ahead The prime minister's associates said Thursday that the disengagement plan will go ahead in any case, even if it turns out that the reports of Arafat's impending death were not premature. From Ariel Sharon's viewpoint, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank is a security move to be undertaken unilaterally, even if Arafat exits the stage. And even if a Palestinian indeed emerges and consolidates his leadership, Israel would at most be ready to discuss the technical aspects of carrying out the disengagement. During the initial stage, Israel would not conduct diplomatic negotiations with the new Palestinian leader. This would only come after the new leader proves that he is disarming the terrorist organizations.

According to this view, the disengagement plan is an intermediate stage on the way to a final accord; it will be implemented whether or not Israel has a Palestinian interlocutor. This would create a new situation - Israel without control over the northern West Bank and Gaza Strip - for the final status negotiations, if they ever take place. It is possible that the emergence of a strong leader to succeed Arafat would help facilitate the implementation of the disengagement (when it comes to the transfer of control over evacuated territory), but it would change nothing beyond this.

Sharon's circle Thursay denied the assessment voiced in the defense establishment that Arafat's successor would be likely to adopt similar behavior and continue to carry the banner of a fight to the finish with Israel, with the goal of replacing Israel rather than living in peace alongside it. These sources close to Sharon argued that even if the fire of hostility burns in the bones of the rest of the Palestinian leadership, none of them have the fanatic stubbornness of Arafat. According to this assessment, no other Palestinian leader would dare to act insolently toward the president of the United States, ignore the will of Europe and scorn the demands of the international community. Sharon's success in isolating Arafat is not only attributable to clever maneuvers, but is also the result of the personal experiences of world leaders with Arafat, the man and his ways.

Virtual matters The day after the Knesset vote on disengagement, one of the ministers said that the way out of the political crisis is simple: the ultimatum of the Netanyahu group is based on the signatures of rabbis presented by Zevulun Orlev. It was later asked whether the rabbis' letter is only virtual. And if so, the ultimatum is virtual, just as the Netanyahu group is virtual. (Ministers Naveh and Katz have not said themselves that they are partners to the ultimatum.) In this situation, the crisis was nothing but hot air based on a mistaken assumption.

As these lines are being written, yesterday afternoon, it was not clear whether Arafat's serious health situation is also nothing more than a virtual matter. The man with the 9 lives may yet awaken tomorrow morning and have a good laugh about all the learned assessments about the post-Arafat era. If, on the other hand, he does not recover, it will be another case of the Minister of History exhibiting a wonderful sense of timing.