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It is doubtful whether the large headlines that yesterday trumpeted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's acceptance in principle of U.S. President George W. Bush's framework for an agreement with the Palestinians made any impression in the Arab capitals or the Palestinian Authority.

There, they discerned the reserved and conditional nature of the Israeli agreement; there they know that Sharon is just reiterating a theoretical principle he has stated in the past; there they realize that Sharon's speech at the Herzliya conference changes nothing in his current attitude toward the Palestinian problem and that the direction he spoke about for the future involves a thousand restrictions and hedges that could render it meaningless.

Presumably in Cairo, Amman and Ramallah they see Sharon's declaration on Wednesday as lip service he is paying to Bush for the president's decision to refrain from proposing an updated road map. Sharon is saying that external elements that are hostile to Israel are intervening for the benefit of Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party's candidate for prime minister. Arab leaders, among them Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, are saying that by saying this, Sharon is trying to make his audience forget the aid being proffered him by Bush in the struggle for the hearts of Israeli voters. Sharon, according to the Arab leaders, is thus deferring the presentation of an updated road map that would have been able to redirect the public debate in Israel and focus it on a concrete and clear alternative to his policy toward the Palestinians.

The American administration was supposed to have presented Israel and the PA with an updated road map on the 20th of this month. The new formulation was to have included the American response to the reservations expressed by both sides concerning the first draft that was given them about two months ago. Israel argued that the first version did not present in a sufficiently binding way the demand to stop terror before the commencement of any diplomatic talks; it adopted the Saudi proposal as an ostensibly neutral international document; and it didn't demand that the Palestinians relinquish the implementation of the right of return to the territories of the State of Israel. The Palestinians argued that the first document intervened in their internal affairs; did not set a timetable; accepted the existence of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza; and did not mention Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, both sides have been careful not to reject the plan; they have accepted it in principle and have asked that changes be made to it.

In two weeks time a crucial diplomatic step was to have been carried out: The United States was to have harnessed the Quartet (the U.S. itself, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia) to give the revised plan the official approval of the Security Council. The aim was to afford the road map the status of a binding international decision, as valid as Resolutions 242 and 338, and make it into the path that contacts between Israel and the PA would follow.

The road map is a plan of action in three stages during the course of which Israel and the Palestinians will have to fulfill a number of conditions that will lead both sides to end the violent hostilities, rebuild trust between them and arrive within three years at a peace the basis of which will be the establishment of a Palestinian state and Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist.

The plan stipulates, among other things, the implementation of an administrative reform in the PA, an end to terror and incitement, an end to punitive Israeli actions, the dismantling of the outposts established by Jewish settlers in the territories, a gradual withdrawal by the Israel Defense Forces from territories it has occupied since the outbreak of the intifada, a stop to the expansion of the Jewish settlements in the territories (including that based on natural growth) and more.

Had the American move been carried out as planned, the Likud and Labor would have had to formulate their positions regarding it. It is easy to imagine that Amram Mitzna would not have hesitated to adopt the road map and to see it as an acceptable variation of the platform he proposes. Sharon, however, would have been pushed into a corner: He would have had to define his position on a concrete peace agreement that has stages of implementation and is unacceptable to the right.

He would no longer have been able to beat around the bush and confine himself to a declaration that he accepts the plan in principle and conditionally, as he has done in the past and as he did again on Wednesday.

The determining fact is that the American administration has acceded to Sharon's request and deferred the presentation of the revised document until after the elections in Israel. It has thus saved Sharon embarrassment and allowed him to make do again with a general statement that promises that in the future the government will adopt the Bush framework, provided the Palestinians fulfill the conditions set by Israel.

Thus Washington has harmed Amram Mitzna's chance of expanding the camp of voters who support him. Had the American document been thrust into the Israeli political arena as a practical action plan, the entire election race would have turned upon it: The voter would have had to decide between the approach of the parties on the left, headed by Labor and backed by a very valuable international scaffolding headed by the United States, and the stance of the right, headed by the Likud, which is sticking, in effect, to the continued hold on the territories at the price of terror and international isolation.

America's decision not to present the program (possibly they will take a formal step during the course of the month to demonstrate that the road map continues to be an active issue) plays directly into Sharon's hands. In the best case, it prevents, or blurs, the necessary debate on the future of relations with the Palestinians and the future of the territories (in that it does not allow for the presentation of a concrete alternative in the shape of the road map); in the worst case, it damages in a direct way Mitzna's chances of persuading most of the voters to support him because international backing and expectations exist for his approach.

Perhaps the American failure reflects a considered approach and not just a mess: The help that Bush is now giving Sharon affords the United States leverage to pressure the prime minister that will be manifested after the elections.

2. Halevy's personal opinion

Ephraim Halevy experienced a contretemps this week: He appeared on the podium of the conference of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya to state his personal opinion of the significance of the strategic terror attack that was directed at the Arkia plane in Mombasa - and his statement was interpreted as the official statement of the head of the Mossad, the prime minister's right hand.

He wanted to stimulate a debate in the governing establishment and public opinion in Israel about the way Israel should prepare itself for and respond to mass terror actions - and his speech was perceived as a practical action plan by someone who is at the center of security decision-making.

Halevy is not the head of the Mossad. He now heads the National Security Council. The transition from the dimness of backstage to the glare of the footlights creates an optical illusion that is liable to trip him up as well as those who are watching him. Those who watch and listen to Halevy do not shake off the aura of mystery that surrounds a person who until not too long ago was not accessible.

At the same time, he is liable to forget that every word he speaks in public is weighed on especially sensitive scales because of his previous positions. Thus, in the newspaper headlines on Tuesday Halevy found his statement that a new era in Israel's dealings with terror had begun, in which a mass attack invites a response the likes of which has been unknown until now.

An examination of his remarks reveals that he did not create the equation: A mega-attack invites a mega-response. He said that strategic terror actions change the rules of the game and open options that until now were unacceptable to public opinion. He sees in attempts to carry out mass terror attacks a challenge to the fact of Israel's existence and therefore defined them as attempted genocide. This implies a recommendation to reply to these attackers in kind: to respond to strategic attacks in an operational language that is completely different from the one used thus far in facing Palestinian terror.

But Halevy did not present recipes and did not indicate defined targets to which the State of Israel will extend its long arm; he called for discussion and for thinking in new terms.

Here is a guess: When Halevy talks about the total nature of the battle that is being waged by the international jihad, he is envisioning the extent of the power the United States has invested in its response to September 11: Just as it was not deterred from attacking the country and the regime that gave its sponsorship to Al-Qaida, so Israel is liable to decide to act against countries and regimes that support those who carry out terror attacks against it.

The world is a single arena, said Halevy in his lecture, and therefore, just as terror crosses borders, the response to it also must not take the sovereignty of states into account. Moreover, just as the world has grown accustomed to the liberties Israel has taken in entering the territories of the Palestinian Authority in the context of its war against terror, so it will accept attacks on headquarters and command posts of terror organizations, in Arab and Muslim capitals, when they take upon themselves responsibility for strategic attacks against Israeli targets.

Halevy's remarks expressed an aggressive, even agitated, stance in face of the force and severity of the threat posed by strategic terror to the state and its citizens. His view of the mass terror attacks as a danger that falls into the category of "genocide, the destruction of a state and its foundations," says something important about the man, his roots and his conceptual world.

Halevy emerges from this lecture looking like a fearful Jew in whose consciousness the Holocaust lurks and shapes his approach to Israel and the environment that surrounds it. As the former head of the Mossad, and in his current position, he is an individual who is exposed, far more than many other office-holders in the Israeli establishment, to the expectations of the international community and the rules of the game that are observed there. Presumably, then, he is aware of the limitations imposed on Israel by virtue of its being a small state that is always fighting for its international status.

In the past, Israel formulated its attitude toward the entry of nuclear weaponry into the Middle East in the wise position: "We will not be the first to do this."

This was not off-the-cuff but an entire philosophy that was formulated in extensive and responsible discussions. Ephraim Halevy's remarks this week did not have similar status; he was not sent to Herzliya to toss into the air an official position that had been worked out in exhausting late-night meetings and that answers the new strategic threat inherent in mass terrorism. He said these things at his own initiative to stimulate public debate and to call upon the governing establishment to begin to think in a different way.

3. Where Mofaz is heading

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is convinced that the expulsion of Yasser Arafat from the region is only a matter of time. As he sees it, the decision is already imprinted in the minds of the decision-makers and only the timing has not yet been determined. The new defense minister is continuing the path of the former chief of staff: He believes that were it not for Arafat, it would have been possible to arrive at a new peace process with the Palestinians. Arafat is the main obstacle to ameliorating the conflict; once again he is not an essential means for settling it.

In Mofaz's view, in contrast to leaders who aspire to bringing serenity and welfare to their people, Arafat is refusing to make the necessary compromises to bring a good life to the Palestinians; he aims at continuing the violent conflict because in this way he believes he will achieve more for his people.

Mofaz is not alone in his assessment: Foreign diplomats who are following what is happening in the Palestinian leadership confirm that the heads of the entire international community, from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are looking for a way to get rid of Arafat because they too have reached the conclusion that as long as he is around it will not be possible to reach an agreement.

As opposed to his predecessor as defense minister, Mofaz is aiming to bring the hostility to a conclusion. While Benjamin Ben-Eliezer held that it was his job to "maintain" the conflict at a "reasonable" level of violence until the conditions become ripe for moving it onto the diplomatic track, Mofaz believes that it is wrong to come to terms with the continuation of the war of attrition.

He will try to convince the government and the prime minister to change the situation entirely by defeating the Palestinian revolt, the key condition for which is getting rid of Arafat.

However, in this Mofaz falls into a contradiction: Deep down he knows that the military pressure that Israel is applying to the Palestinians has gone as far as it can go. How then will he convince them to lay down their arms and turn to the negotiating track? He is casting his lot with the potential for dialogue he sees in the Palestinian leadership after the Arafat era and the expected international developments, first and foremost the American attack on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. This hope leaves the Israeli leadership with only a passive role; the initiative for the change is supposed to come from outside forces. This too is a way to beat around the bush when it comes to painful decisions.