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None of the participants in Tuesday's meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas were surprised at anything that was said there. Not the wrangling over terror, nor the coordination of the disengagement, nor the Palestinian requests that were denied by Israel. Everything had been decided in preparatory meetings between Dov Weissglas and Saeb Erekat. Even the Palestinian disappointment expressed after the meeting was expected.

The Israeli side said afterward that the importance of the meeting was nil. It was scheduled to take place, and so it did. The media was kept away from the event, which had no joint declarations at its close. Abbas was not required to endure a photo op surrounded by Israeli flags and symbols, which had embarrassed him in meetings with Sharon two years ago. This time Abbas was asked only to sit, with his advisors, around the dining room table at Sharon's official residence.

But in spite of the expressions of disappointment and disparagement on both sides, it seems the meeting expressed the exact state of the relationship between the two sides. They are trapped in a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Which comes first, the Palestinian war on terror or the strengthening of Abbas' government with goodwill gestures by Israel?

THe PA chairman expressed it well when he said, "You don't give me anything, because there is terror, and I can't do anything against terror because you don't give me anything." Sharon rejected the arguments of his guest, accusing him of whining. "You are stronger than you make yourself out to be," he said. Sharon's message to Abbas was "don't say you are weak, because in the end people will believe you." Sharon's aides were even more frank. They said the weaker Abbas gets, the harder it will be to shore him up. "What is he telling us? I am pitiable, I can't promise security, strengthen me," a senior source said.

Israeli officials are asking what the point is of strengthening a person who can't exert control, and whose weakness is immediately translated into a rise in terror. One official believes that Abbas' decision to delay the parliamentary elections symbolizes his weakness more than anything else. If he thought he would win, he would hold the elections on time. A person who is afraid to lose avoids the contest.

Sharon expressed willingness for gestures that do not impair security, such as a symbolic freeing of long-serving prisoners and improvement of the border crossings. He is also willing to allow the Palestinians to start building the Gaza port, which will take a few years to complete. But he is delaying the reconstruction of the Palestinian airport, which would take only a few months. The Palestinians, with the support of the World Bank, want direct transport of merchandise from the Ashdod port to Gaza. That will doubtless strengthen the ruined Palestinian economy, but what Israeli would want to travel the roads behind a truck from Gaza that has gone through only a Palestinian security check?

"Whatever doesn't have to do with security, Abbas got an immediate positive answer to. The problem is that everything involves security," a senior source said.

The weakening of Abbas is very troubling to the American administration. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who came to the area last week, was impressed by the seriousness of a report she received from her security coordinator General William Ward, who decribed the crumbling of the PA, power struggles and infighting at senior levels of Fatah.

She asked her Israeli hosts to do all they could to help Abbas. Washington understands that Abbas' fall would be considered a failure of President George W. Bush's policy of democratization. But even the Americans are wondering whether to continue assisting Abbas or if the time has come to realize that nothing will help him, and even if he gets extra assistance, he won't be able to give anything in return.