1. Sharon's vows

The craft of journalism would be immeasurably easier if it were possible to take what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says at face value. During the events to mark Memorial Day and Independence Day he made a series of extraordinarily-phrased declarations that seemingly indicated a definite turnaround in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one appearance, he revealed that he had "vowed" to achieve peace and security and noted that this had been his promise to voters. Facing the bereaved families at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, he said that he was obligated to "rid the land of war" and bring it peace and security. In an interview with Israel Radio he declared that with the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), it is possible to try seriously to make peace and that he "feels that it is within his powers" to bring about quiet and security.

The Sharon of Israel's 55th Independence Day is thus a prime minister for whom making peace is the top priority, and he does not intend to miss the opportunity. This is not the hedging, suspicious Sharon who sees his main job as thwarting Palestinian plots; this is a Sharon who believes in the chance of obtaining an agreement and radiates an unprecedented willingness to contribute his part to this.

It is not only the words that Sharon chose to get his messages across that deserve special attention, but also the circumstances in which he delivered them: In interviews and public appearances for Independence Day - the context of which is a description of the state of the nation on a historical continuum - and on an emotional memorial occasion, facing the graves of the fallen, where what is said have the ring of a vow. The heart is tempted to believe that this time, Sharon was sincere in what he said: It is unimaginable that he chose the special atmosphere of Memorial Day and Independence Day in order to create a false impression; it is unimaginable that his words were merely utilitarian, designed to serve his tactical moves vis-a-vis the American administration, which had put the road map on his doorstep.

Furthermore, Sharon's unequivocal statements this week were already echoing in the interviews he had granted newspapers on the eve of Passover. To the readers of Haaretz, he mentioned Shiloh and Bethlehem as examples of places from which Israel will have to separate in exchange for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. To other journalists he said similar things.

Moreover, during the election campaign, Sharon and his close associates whispered to a number of well-known politicians that this was indeed the drift: to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. This was also the basic assumption of the work of planning and thinking that was done, at Sharon's bidding, by Dan Meridor when he was a minister without portfolio. It was also the logic of Israel's involvement, with Sharon's approval, in the backstage activities that led to the appointment of Abu Mazen as the Palestinian prime minister. The innovative declarations this week look, therefore, like the prow of a policy submarine that is now rising to the surface.

But the gadfly of skepticism is buzzing a warning against falling into a trap: Sharon, after all, is a master of trickery and manipulation. Who can assure that he is not spinning a mirage yet again? It is not only his well known past that justifies the suspicion, not only his dishonest conduct during the past two years as revealed in the State Comptroller's Reports, but also his political preferences. Sharon has chosen to set up a government with the National Union and the National Religious Party (NRP). Sharon avoids any real confrontation with the Jewish settlers in the territories. Sharon has distanced Dan Meridor - who has come to the conclusion that the continued hold on the territories is endangering the Zionist project - from his government. In his stead, he has appointed Uzi Landau, who believes that the security of the state and its continued existence depend upon continued control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sharon has approved preemptive actions and military incursions into the heart of Palestinian territory at an embarrassing time from Abu Mazen's perspective, in a way that gave rise to the suspicion that they were intended to make it difficult for him to fulfill the conditions of the road map.

Sharon, naturally, has explanations for all the moves that would seem to contradict the promising declarations he voiced this week. More than any other Israeli politician he must be judged not by what he says, but by what he does.

2. The word from intelligence

Abu Mazen is also facing the test of deeds. If the Israeli public had to rely on Sharon alone in order to judge the behavior of the Palestinian prime minister, the confusion would be great: Can his statements be believed? Are they not crucially influenced by the outcome that Sharon intends for the discussions of the implementation of the road map? In other words, when your prime minister is a person who is not entirely to be trusted, you can't be sure about his versions of the development of relations with the Palestinian side and the aims he has set himself. You don't know whether he really wants to reach an agreement or is just pretending that this is his intention. It will be hard for you to tell when his positions are for real and when they are merely tactical; when his moves are justified and when they are aimed at achieving hidden goals.

In these circumstances, the professional intelligence organizations become the main codes for figuring out the behavior both of the Palestinian side and the policy-makers in Jerusalem. This reliance, however, is problematic in and of itself, because of the intelligence echelon's known tendency to placate the political echelon and serve its ends. But in the absence of a way to penetrate the depths of Sharon's soul, the opinions of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service are an important key to the understanding of his behavior: They paint a picture of the situation that supports his positions.

According to IDF and Shin Bet evaluations, the change in the Palestinian leadership has been only partial. Contrary to what was hoped, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has succeeded in maintaining control of a large part of the PA security branches and has thwarted their concentration in three frameworks that would be directly subordinated to Abu Mazen (through Mohammed Dahlan). Moreover, Arafat has succeeded in maintaining his hold on some of the funds that come into the PA and thus has the ability to use them to underwrite acts of terror.

The new official position has not made Abu Mazen into a decisive individual who is able to stand up to Arafat. He also does not have power bases within the Palestinian armed forces. Abu Mazen had thought he would rely on the armed force that is ostensibly at Dahlan's disposal, and intended to impose his will on Gaza, but the signs are multiplying that this was a false hope. Dahlan does not intend to enter into a confrontation with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but is aiming to achieve their agreement to a truce that is limited in time.

In contrast to the perception of the IDF and the political echelon (and to a lesser extent of the Shin Bet) of Arafat as an arch-deceiver who has been plotting since Oslo to launch murderous terror attacks against Israel and has not abandoned his ambition to bring about its destruction, the intelligence evaluation bodies are not attributing satanic intentions of this sort to Abu Mazen. On the contrary; he is perceived as someone who has come to the conclusion that it is better for the Palestinians to pursue their struggle against Israel in the diplomatic arena and as someone who sincerely believes that they must abandon the use of terror.

Thus Abu Mazen's intentions are good, in the opinion of the professional political echelon in Israel; the doubt concerns his ability to deliver the merchandise. Therefore Sharon's demands of Abu Mazen look like they are substantively derived from the Military Intelligence and Shin Bet evaluations: to break up the terror infrastructures and not make do with a hudna (truce); to get control of all the armed organizations; to bring about a real change in the leadership of the PA and not make do with limited changes in its makeup; to tie the declaration of the establishment of a Palestinian state (inside temporary borders) to a declaration of their acceptance of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state and the relinquishing of the Palestinian demand to implement the right of return within its borders.

The trouble is that in light of Sharon's reputation and the positions he has expressed in the past on the Palestinian issue, there is a pesky suspicion that the policy demands he is making now are not just a legitimate conclusion from the intelligence evaluations of the situation but also, and perhaps mainly, landmines that he is laying on the routes of the road map to lead the Israelis and the Palestinians to a dead end yet again.

3. What Abu Mazen can do

At the practical level, Israel and the PA are now probing their ability to arrive at an understanding about the implementation of an agreement along the lines of "Gaza first." The intention is to put to the test the ability of Abu Mazen and Mahmoud Dahlan to impose their authority on the Gaza Strip (or part of it) and thereby bring about an end to acts of terror that take place there or originate there.

The Israeli demand is that those who plan and carry out the terror attacks be arrested and tried, that the terror infrastructure be dismantled and that planned acts of terror be prevented. In return, Israel is planning a series of gestures and ameliorations aimed at demonstrating to the Palestinians that they come out ahead and that a definite change is occurring in the relations between the two sides. There is also a willingness to examine extending the experiment to one city in the West Bank, even though Abu Mazen and Dahlan have no real foothold in the armed organizations there.

The clear-eyed assessment is that the expectations will not be fulfilled. Even now, the Palestinian prime minister and his interior minister admit that it is not within their power to force their will on the armed organizations in the Gaza Strip (and certainly not in the West Bank). They are asking Israel to make do with a cease-fire that Hamas might perhaps be persuaded to accept.

At present, Hamas is doing whatever it likes within the Gaza Strip: imposing curfews, closing neighborhoods and instilling fear in the population in its efforts to find collaborators with Israel. In the West Bank, Israel will not withdraw its forces, because of the unequivocal assessment that this would lead to a wave of terror attacks.

The scenario that is emerging is one of official negotiations, which will apparently begin within a few days at a meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen and concentrate in the initial stage on coming to a security arrangement in the Gaza Strip. Despite the assumption that Israeli expectations of demolishing the terror infrastructure will not be fulfilled, there remains the possibility of the achievement of a limited arrangement leading to a lull in the terror, which would be recompensed by Israeli ameliorations. The extent of the success of this experiment will determine the chances of expanding it to additional provisions of the road map. Israel will insist that discussions in the first stage will take on the appearance of purely security negotiations.

As Israel sees it, the main obstacles threatening the success of the move are Arafat and Hamas. Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet are both of the opinion that Abu Mazen and Dahlan are prepared to enforce their authority on the Tanzim and are also able to impose it on Hamas without dragging the Palestinian population into a civil war. But until now, in order to do this, they needed Arafat's approval, which has not been given. Their main test will be their willingness to free themselves of the need to ask for it.

4. Poraz makes waves

Last Friday, when it turned out that the Histadrut labor federation had stopped the big strike, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz asked Government Secretary Israel Maimon to conduct a round of phone calls to the ministers to get their support for his proposal to allow El Al planes to land at Ben-Gurion airport on the Sabbath. The calls revealed that the NRP ministers were opposed. Then and there the Histadrut decided to shut down the airport to the other airlines that fly to Israel as well. The bitterness of the passengers who were stuck abroad raised the level of tension between the NRP and Poraz's Shinui party.

Ever since he was appointed interior minister, Poraz has managed to make a splash in the media with astonishing frequency and is threatening to compete with Shinui leader Justice Minister Tommy Lapid's PR expertise. On one occasion it was because of his decision not to intervene in the public display of leavened products during Passover, on another because of his decision to give citizenship to the families of soldiers who are not Jewish according to religious law, and on yet another because of his decision to grant permanent residency rights to the children of foreign workers who were born in Israel and have grown up here.

Hardly a day goes by when Poraz does not make headlines and cause a flurry. In his immediate circle they say that the media noise is not a manipulation for its own sake but rather an inevitable result of his ministerial activity. In the NRP they scoff: His moves are calculated and their function is to keep Shinui in the public consciousness because in the absence of an orderly party structure this is the most effective way of uniting its voters.

Poraz says that it is legitimate for him to realize his worldview in his position. He is not sitting on Construction and Housing Minister Effi Eitam's tail to examine the relations between the Housing Ministry and the Jewish settlers in the territories and he expects the NRP ministers not to scrutinize under a magnifying glass the way he exerts his authority at the Interior Ministry. In the meantime, Eitam is complaining of the way Shinui is interpreting the coalition agreement and wondering why Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, who was the main intermediary in achieving the understanding between the two parties, is joining them.

Here is the next reason for conflict between Poraz and Eitam: The interior minister believes that the way to break up the illegal outposts in the territories is to remove the IDF's protection of them. This would be better and more effective, in his opinion, that the familiar ritual of a noisy forced evacuation of the settlers, followed by their return and the repositioning of shipping containers on the ground.