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The report of the bombing in Haifa halted Silvan Shalom's speech. He quickly shifted gears and told the members of the cabinet that no government can survive if it does nothing in the face of such a wave of terror. "Either we drop everything and get out of there," he said, referring to the territories, "or we throw him out," meaning Arafat.

Usually, that's when Shimon Peres interrupts with an angry retort, "What nonsense! Arafat's our only partner." This time, Peres's depression was evident on his face. He preferred a much less forceful warning that if we get rid of Arafat, we'll end up with the Hamas.

None of the ministers protested when Shalom threw back at Peres, "There's nothing to be ashamed of if you admit a mistake. Between Hamas and Arafat, I prefer Hamas."

Shalom said Arafat is a terrorist in a diplomat's suit, while the Hamas can be hit unmercifully. Everyone will understand who we're dealing with, he implied, and there won't be any international protests.

Shalom didn't invent that approach. But up until recently it's been hidden away in the pages of Nekuda, the settlement movement's weekly, and at the Yesha council's Web site. Ministers Uzi Landau, Natan Sharansky and the Shas representatives in cabinet - and of course Avigdor Lieberman - constantly reiterate that there's no reason to fear Arafat's successor will be worse than him. As far as they're concerned, Arafat is the worst of all.

Last Wednesday, before the wave of bombings, the ministers could also find traces of this approach in the heart of the defense establishment. Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the government's coordinator in the territories, and up until recently the head of research for Military Intelligence, told the cabinet that if things don't change, the Hamas will soon be in power in the territories.

Gilad said the Palestinian public has long ago reached the conclusion that Arafat and his corrupt cohorts aren't losing any sleep over the horrible conditions in the territories. The senior officer warned that if Israel doesn't create some order in the territories - and fast - we'll soon be witnessing an Afghanistan, with Taliban and Uzbeks killing each other in the streets.

There are some in the defense establishment who play with the hope that Abu Mazen or Abu Ala or some other moderate Palestinian will be the successor to Arafat and not one of the younger, more combative leaders like Marwan Barghouti. But none of the experts is ready to gamble his career on betting that the day after Israel "throws Arafat out" that it will be Abu Mazen - and not Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, or Barghouti, and not chaos that ensues.

In any case, the Palestinians, from Abu Mazen to Yassin, aren't playing the Israeli poker game, and aren't cooperating in the effort to hasten the settling of inheritance. It's not the example of Afghanistan that appeals to them, nor the prisons of the West Bank nor the cemeteries of Gaza.

From Yihye Ayash to Abu Hanoud

Instead of toppling Arafat, all the competing forces around him are trying to win him over to their view. The Tanzim wants to be part of the leadership; the Hamas leaders say they don't plan to give up the armed struggle but won't let the Israelis have the pleasure of watching a Palestinian civil war; the close associates try to persuade him to impose a cease-fire on the Hamas and Tanzim and impose a return to the negotiating table on Sharon. They implore every foreign visitor with any kind of influence (lately, Anthony Zinni) to help them bring Arafat down to reality and shake off the nonsensical notion that the intifada will topple Sharon and Ben-Eliezer and bring Avraham Burg to power.

Saeb Erekat doesn't know where to hide himself every time the rais [the prince] tells a visitor that the Mossad was behind the Dolphinarium bombing, or sometimes claims that Israel was behind the bombing of the Twin Towers. Nobody knows better than his closest aides how difficult it is to change their boss's mind.

According to one story making the rounds in the PA, it took one of his closest aides, someone who eats with him three times a day, to persuade Arafat to add ful [broad beans] to the menu. But in the past few weeks they were under the impression that Arafat was beginning to move in the right direction. According to several reliable sources, Arafat gave permission to Prof. Sari Nusseibeh and then to Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabo, to publicly announce that the PLO recognizes the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, and that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem would not be at the cost of that identity.

Arafat himself was supposed to have been spending the coming week making a move that would attempt to make it clear to Israelis that the Palestinian territorial ambitions do not cross the Green Line.

On the eve of Zinni's arrival, there were signs that Arafat wanted to get a certificate of approval from the American envoy that would put Arafat's name back on the guest list at the White House. Not only the Palestinians, but high-ranking American and European officials claim that the assassination of Mahmud Abu Hanoud disrupted Arafat's plans. One of the officials compared the ramifications of the assassination to that of Shimon Peres' decision to assassinate "the engineer" (Yihye Ayash). Since then, it's been difficult for Peres to oppose assassinations.

Both Ayash and Abu Hanoud enjoyed widespread popularity in the Palestinian street. Washington and Brussels both expected the Hamas to react quickly to the assassination of Abu Hanoud. Indeed the composition of the cells and the explosives they used confirmed those concerns. Is it possible that Sharon didn't expect what the EU's Javier Solana expected?

Here's some food for thought: In his meetings with foreign leaders, Sharon often talks at length about his "open account" with Arafat going back to the days of the siege on Beirut. Arafat, for his part, likes to talk about how he managed to trick Sharon.

Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Israel, issued a sharp protest to Israel after the assassination of Abu Hanoud. He didn't go through the motions of depositing a letter on a Foreign Ministry desk but went to the Prime Minister's Office to lodge the protest in person. The protest wasn't about the gravity of the assassination but about its timing - so close to the concerted international effort to bring calm to the territories. As a result of his active support for the American reaction to September 11, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been dubbed the "American foreign minister." So, it's reasonable to assume that behind the British protest was an American reservation about the timing of the assassination - if not more than that.

The other cease-fire

The thundering failure of the American effort to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire has resulted in a temporary truce between the prime minister and foreign minister. In any case, nobody's talking about lifting sieges and ending closures nowadays.

For Peres and his Labor Party colleagues to remain in the government, Sharon doesn't have to move Meir Dagan out of the Israeli negotiating team - as long as he doesn't move Arafat out of the Palestinian leadership.

If Peres' threat to quit the government in case Sharon topples the PA overrides Lieberman's threat to quit if the government doesn't do so, Zinni will be checking out a lot of Palestinian prisons and weapons depots in the coming weeks.

Even if the decision to declare war on Arafat doesn't drive the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and his friends out of the government, Yossi Beilin and his friends in the left wing of the party won't have much choice but to force them out with a party convention decision - to quit the party themselves.

Either way, the chance that Ben-Eliezer might end up party chairman has already pushed Beilin into a corner. It's not only Haim Ramon who is getting close to a final decision to join the leadership race - Beilin's friends are pressing him to do the same thing.

The attacks will also help Benjamin Netanyahu's book sales; more critical is the fact that his opponents in the Likud are afraid of a chain reaction that would lead him back to power. The attacks will lead to the demolishing of the PA, Labor quitting the government, the national unity coalition breaking up, and Bibi being elected as the Likud's candidate for prime minister. That scenario is breathing down the necks of Netanyahu's rivals in the government. Even if Peres isn't exactly the cup of tea for people like Silvan Shalom, they know he's the last obstacle in Bibi's way. Last week, Shalom calmed the foreign minster who complained outside the government's meeting room that not only did Sharon name Dagan to the negotiating team, but also that ministers Dan Meridor and Tzipi Livni are trespassing on Peres' territory. Peres promised he'd consider a compromise proposal by Shalom that the finance minister head the negotiating team when Zinni finally invites Israel and the Palestinians to a three-way meeting. That was before the attacks.