During his visit two weeks ago to Israel, former Italian prime minister Massimo D'Alema hosted a small group of Israelis - public figures and former diplomats - to a dinner at a Jerusalem hotel.

The conversation quickly turned to the conciliatory interviews Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave to the press for their Independence Day editions. One of the Israelis, of the type for whom it's second nature, no matter who is in government, to explain and defend Israeli policy, expressed full confidence in Sharon's peace rhetoric. He said the prime minister understands the solution to the conflict is the establishment of a Palestinian state beside Israel.

The former premier from the Italian left said that three or four years ago he had a long conversation with Sharon, who was in Rome for a brief visit. According to D'Alema, Sharon explained at length that the Bantustan model was the most appropriate solution to the conflict.

The defender of Israel quickly protested. "Surely that was your personal interpretation of what Sharon said."

D'Alema didn't give in. "No, sir, that is not interpretation. That is a precise quotation of your prime minister."

Supplementary evidence backing D'Alema's story can be found in an expensively produced brochure prepared for Tourism Minister Benny Elon, who is promoting a two-state solution - Israel and Jordan. Under the title "The Road to War: a tiny protectorate, overpopulated, carved up and demilitarized," the Moledet Party leader presents "the map of the Palestinian state, according to Sharon's proposal." Sharon's map is surprisingly similar to the plan for protectorates in South Africa in the early 1960s. Even the number of cantons is the same - 10 in the West Bank (and one more in Gaza). Dr. Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, notes that the South Africans only managed to create four of their 10 planned Bantustans.

The Bantustan model, says Liel, was the ugliest of all the tricks used to perpetuate the apartheid regime in most of South Africa's territory. By 1986, unrest in the Bantustans turned into ongoing rioting and terror, which descended into coups in the so-called independent regimes, and South African intervention. The minuscule support the Bantustan governments did enjoy evaporated, so by January 1994, they were finally dismantled and became integrated into the united South Africa of black majority rule.

No country recognized the Bantustans nor did any drop embargoes against South Africa. But veteran leaders of the black struggle against apartheid remember that business people from Israel and Taiwan were the only foreigners who developed business relations with the Bantustan governments. The permission given to the largest of the Bantustans, Bophutatswana, to open a diplomatic office in Tel Aviv infuriated American opponents of the apartheid regime, including Senator Ted Kennedy, and some of the Jewish congressmen of the time.

An Israeli who spent many years nurturing Israeli relations with Africa was also at the dinner hosted by the Italian prime minister. He said that whenever he happened to encounter Sharon, he would be interrogated at length about the history of the protectorates and their structures.

Powell as Uriah

Presumably, the CIA has got its hands on a copy of the instructions sent to Israel's foreign legations on how to explain Israeli policy regarding "The Middle East after Saddam Hussein." After all, the document received only low-level classification.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell could have saved himself the trip to Jerusalem by reading in it what he heard in the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday:

"Israel accepts the central principles presented in President Bush's speech of June 24, 2002, and regards them as the basis for the continuation of the political process. Israel welcomes any `road map' that matches the above-mentioned presidential vision and which will lead to its implementation on the basis of a new and different Palestinian leadership and implementation of the reforms there."

The document also said that all the commitments are conditioned on the test of a Palestinian campaign against terror.

That, more or less, is what Sharon told Powell.

A strange argument broke out between the two, however, over their interpretations of Bush's "vision." Sharon argued the road map is not a precise translation of the "vision," which is the only peace plan the prime minister has accepted.

Powell, who just happens to be the person who was appointed by Bush and gets his salary from Bush's government, replied that actually, the president thinks the road map is a faithful reflection of his vision.

Now, all that's left is to ask Bush why he sent his ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, to Jerusalem two weeks ago, to give the Israeli prime minister a copy of a peace plan that does not reflect the president's vision.

Between the lines, the leader of the free world should be insulted. In effect, the prime minister is saying the president did not notice he was hoodwinked by the Quartet, including Powell, who sold him a road map that leads somewhere Bush did not intend to go.

As published here three weeks ago, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has already told the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that British Prime Minister Tony Blair hypocritically seduced Bush into adopting the Quartet road map. Rivlin did not invent the idea of Bush falling into a plot laid by Blair. Rivlin picked it up at the highest levels of Israel's government, where he also picked up that his primary mission in New York was to kill the map, softly or not.

In the summary of the notes on the autopsy of the dead Powell mission, the Foreign Ministry made the following distinction: Powell was like the biblical Uriah the Hittite, sent by King David into battle. But an experienced general like him is not a sucker. He understood the map could turn him into the scapegoat of the Christian neo-conservatives and the opportunistic Jewish busybodies. The Foreign Ministry's assessment is that Powell will tell the president something along these lines: "I was deeply impressed by the readiness of the two sides to put an end to the age-old conflict between them. This is your opportunity to put another feather in your crown. Your involvement is more important than ever, for that, so I recommend you name a special presidential envoy to implement your vision."

Confirmation of that can be found in Powell's decision meanwhile to postpone the appointments of the supervisors meant to implement the road map. State Department staffer Richard Erdman, who was designated to head the team, has a piece of paper saying he's the next ambassador to Algeria. Powell's assistant, David Satterfield, has meanwhile been asked to stay here only until the weekend.

The non-governmental formula

A few hours before Powell's plane landed here, a not-very-large group of Israelis and Palestinians who have already expressed support for the road map, lined up at passport control to leave for Copenhagen. Among the Israelis were MK Haim Ramon and former minister Uzi Baram, former MKs Dalia Rabin-Pelossof and Abdul Wahab Darawshe, Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Gazit, Dr. David Kimche and Reuven Merhav, two former directors-general of the Foreign Ministry. Along with authors Sami Michael and Amos Elon, businessman Dov Lautman, former ambassador Avi Primor and Nadia Hilu from Na'amat as well as a group of academics, they were all signing onto a declaration of peace rare in its content and the composition of its signatories.

Under the rubric of the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace (The Copenhagen Group), the Israeli group joined a group of Palestinian security officials and public personages, ex-generals and business people from Jordan, and former diplomats and writers from Egypt. Their joint declaration said: "The peace forces in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Palestine have agreed to join hands to work together for the mobilization of the Arab and Israeli peoples and world public opinion to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

The conference participants prepared a short and simple peace formula for their governments: "United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 1397, and the Arab Peace Initiative (the Saudi Initiative) adopted by the Arab League Summit in Beirut in March 2002, especially the principle of exchange of full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories of 1967 for a full peace, normal relations and security arrangements not only between Israel and the adjacent states but with the Arab world; Security for both sides, starting with an end to all violence; Respect for human rights, international humanitarian law, and the environment; Evacuation of all settlements in all areas occupied in 1967, excluding those that are included in land swaps; Agreed borders based on and equal to June 4, 1967; Jerusalem as the capitals of two independent states."

The "right of return land mine" was dismantled with the following interesting formulation: "A just and agreed upon solution of the refugee problem consistent with the Palestinian determination for the fulfillment of all relevant UN resolutions including UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and with the Israeli determination to maintain the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, without prejudice to the Arab population of Israel and according to the bilateral peace agreement."

The "alliance" members agreed, "Peace is too important to be left only to governments."

Powell's return to Washington without an Israeli signature on the road map is evidence that it's also impossible to trust the most powerful government in the world. The crises afflicting Meretz and Labor and the silence in Shinui on all the issues regarding the peace process, show that peace cannot be left to the political parties.

On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, the tension between Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen has also been a bad influence on the dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian peace groups. To remind everyone who's the boss, Arafat is delaying the launch of the Nusseibeh-Ayalon initiative, and for the same reason, the Beilin-Abed Rabbo agreement, which has Abu Mazen's support, is also suffering from takeoff problems.