Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted the worn-out tactic of soccer coaches: the best defense is a good offense. Instead of offering reasons for his refusal to freeze construction in the settlements, the prime minister is attacking the Palestinians for deciding to end negotiations.

The story goes as follows. A few days ago we reported that Netanyahu's representative to talks with the Palestinians and Americans, Isaac Molho, refused to accept a Palestinian position paper on core issues - including the division of Jerusalem - from the head of the Palestinian delegation, Saeb Erekat.

I wondered why such a polite guy like Molho would be so discourteous to someone he had known for so long, and embarrass special U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who hosted a meeting in Washington. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian team, solved the riddle a few days ago.

In an interview with the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat, Shtayyeh said Molho mentioned that he had been appointed only as Netanyahu's personal representative and was not authorized to make contacts on behalf of the Israeli government. According to a senior Palestinian source close to President Mahmoud Abbas' people, Molho said that if it were discovered that he had taken part in even a smidgen of negotiations over Jerusalem, the government would crumble.

There are two possibilities. Either Netanyahu really is afraid of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, or he is using his loudmouthed colleague as an alibi for refusal. In any case, this scion of a right-wing family and hero of the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance is not ashamed to look like a coward in front of non-Jews.

His office has refused to discuss what went on at the meeting, saying it does not reveal the details of diplomatic contacts.

The Palestinians are afraid, too. They are worried that the Americans, led by their old-new adviser Dennis Ross, and Molho, his old friend, are cooking up a surprise behind their backs. PA headquarters is taking seriously the report on a new plan for a long-term Israeli lease on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It's unclear whether the plan includes American recognition of a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the replacement of the Israeli army by international forces.

To prevent such surprises, which happen during diplomatic droughts, the Egyptians are pressuring Abbas to leave the settlements alone, drum up some courage and present to the world a detailed Palestinian peace plan. We'll see whether Netanyahu admits in public that he's afraid.

A tale of sewage

It's no wonder that Netanyahu gave Gilad Erdan the job of UN ambassador. Netanyahu, who has turned the position into a springboard, discovered that the environmental protection minister knows a thing or two about manipulation for the sake of propaganda. Last month Erdan and senior ministry officials set out for a much-publicized visit to the site of the Palestinian city of Rawabi, the only city to be put up in the West Bank since 1967. He asked that construction be frozen until a solution could be found for the flowing sewage.

The industrious minister's concern for water quality deserves admiration. After all, we all drink from the same pot. It's a pity, though, that while Erdan was in the vicinity of the new city near Ramallah, he didn't jump over to visit the streams of sewage flowing from the settlements and outposts nearby.

Before he leaves for the glories of New York, to give speeches about one-Jerusalem-united-forever, Erdan should cast his eyes on the sewage spewing from the neighborhoods east of Kidron Stream, and from there to the Dead Sea. When he has a minute, he might check the state of the sewers in Ariel, which is, according to the platform of the minister's party, an integral part of the State of Israel. Experts in his office have no doubt informed him that there is room for improvement in this area within the 1967 borders as well. Ayalon Stream, for example, becomes filled with sewage from surrounding communities each year.

The settlers, too, have discovered the propaganda potential hidden in sewers. A few months ago, the head of the South Hebron Regional Council, Zvi Bar Tzahi, invited environmental journalists to tour Palestinian garbage dumps and stone quarries, which spoil the landscape for the enlightened occupiers.

The touching environmental concern of the settlers, whose homes do not exactly blend into the scenery, is part of an overall strategy of moving from defense to offense on all fronts. For example, instead of talking about the nursery schools needed to match what is called the settlements' "natural growth" of population, the settlers started an organization that files suits against unauthorized building by Palestinians in Area C, controlled by Israel.

Who notices that the Civil Administration rejects most of the Palestinians' applications? Who cares that the administration doesn't raise a finger against the organization's leader, who lives in an illegal outpost? Instead of apologizing for the wayward Israelis who set fire to Palestinians' olive trees, the settlers attack the Israel Defense Forces for not protecting their groves from their Arab neighbors.

They even have scientific proof. The settler magazine B'Sheva recently published a study by Atiyah Zar (the daughter of a settler leader, Rabbi Moshe Levinger ) that surveys media coverage of the olive harvest. The author, described as a communications major at Ariel College, depicts hostile coverage of anti-Palestinian incidents that occurred during the harvest, in contrast to favorable coverage of what she calls illegal demonstrations against the separation wall at Na'alin.

"So what if they haven't proved that the settlers are the ones who caused injury to Palestinians?" the researcher says. Indeed, the time has come for the Palestinians to stop throwing burning cigarettes into their own olive groves.