Since Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) assumed office as the Palestinian prime minister, Israel has hardened its official positions and has made it clear it will not take any steps to strengthen his position until he begins fighting terror. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is clinging to his doctrine that "there are no free lunches," and is demanding that Abu Mazen and his government's chief of security, Mohammed Dahlan, first prove their willingness to work to uproot terrorism, and demonstrate that they, rather than PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, are in control of the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon's stance arouses the suspicion that the prime minister is once again using delaying tactics, which are liable to frustrate current efforts to calm the conflict and restart diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the PA. Sharon has so far succeeded in foiling every diplomatic plan presented to him - even without explicitly rejecting them - by presenting demands preventing progress. His demand for "seven days of quiet" as a precondition for any diplomatic progress, which foiled implementation of both the Mitchell Report and the Tenet plan, has not yet been forgotten.

There is some logic to Israel's insistence that the new Palestinian government take real action to eradicate the terrorist infrastructure rather than make do with a "cease-fire" by the terrorist organizations. Such a truce would calm the situation, but also would enable Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Tanzim to continue to exist as armed militias and to exploit the cease-fire in order to amass power for a resumption of the conflict. However, Israel could take a number of steps that would help Abu Mazen solidify his rule and acquire public legitimacy, which are necessary preconditions for a war on terrorism. It would be possible to make gestures and demonstrate a desire for diplomatic progress without undermining security even without halting Israel Defense Forces operations aimed at foiling terror attacks.

A prime example of such a gesture would be the evacuation of settlement outposts. There is no security justification for the foot-dragging by Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz regarding the removal of illegal outposts that have been established in the West Bank. The delays caused by endless discussions and the attempts to legalize retroactively some of the outposts demonstrate that the government is afraid of a political confrontation with the settlers and the right, preferring to leave the outposts as a bargaining chip.

Experience shows that Sharon tends to make gestures and ease life for the Palestinians only under pressure from the United States or on the eve of a trip to Washington. At such times, Israel will often expand the area in which Gaza fisherman are permitted to fish, ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinian goods and people, and expound on visions such as a "Marshall Plan" for rehabilitating the Palestinian economy. Under heavy pressure from the White House, Sharon even agreed to return frozen Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel to the PA. But after the photo op with U.S. President George W. Bush, the status quo ante is usually restored.

As the departure date for his eighth meeting with Bush approaches, Sharon will presumably once again take steps to ease life in the territories, and may even set a date for a meeting with Abu Mazen. This, however, misses the point. Israel must aspire to an agreement with the Palestinians not merely to placate the American administration until the next crisis. It must extend a hand to Abu Mazen and hope for his success so that the moderates on the Palestinian side will be strengthened.