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On October 30, 2000, prime minister Ehud Barak and public security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami visited the northern district police headquarters. All around, things were aflame - nine Arabs, all of them Israeli citizens, had been killed (at that point), forests in the Galilee were burning, Jewish motorists on the Wadi Ara highway were coming under vicious barrages of stones, the bank and the gas station in Umm al-Fahm had been set on fire, stores were looted in Acre and Nazareth, the intifada was raging in the territories, helicopters were hovering in the skies and the wails of ambulance sirens filled the air. This was five days after Ariel Sharon went to the Temple Mount.

Barak agreed to let me accompany him on the trip. In the helicopter on the way to Nazareth, when we wore earplugs to block out the noise, I wrote a question on my notepad and showed it to him: "Why didn't you prevent Sharon's provocation?"

"Because the Shin Bet and the police approved the visit," the prime minister responded.

"How do you plan to calm things down?" I persisted.

"By remaining cool," he wrote, and then handed the notepad back to me.

At the time, Barak had just been through five exhausting days in which he tried as hard as he could to put a lid on the volcano. His expression was grim, almost sad. He hadn't slept much. His time in power was slipping away: The peace process upon which he had pinned his entire political future had fallen apart several weeks earlier at the Camp David summit. His government had broken up. The Arab sector was in revolt.

When the helicopter landed, we were whisked off in a police van to the northern district headquarters. On the way, Barak, Ben-Ami and the police commissioner were asked what they thought the possible implications would be of the "clarification committee" that the government had just decided to establish. Their answers indicated trepidation: The decision puts the police in an uncomfortable situation; its responses to the disturbances in the Arab sector will be put under a magnifying glass. Shlomo Ben-Ami remarked that even if the government hadn't decided to appoint a special panel, the behavior of the police officers involved in the incidents in which Arab citizens were killed would have been investigated.

Barak was subsequently compelled to upgrade the clarification committee to a state commission of inquiry with the authority to examine the actions of the prime minister and public security minister as well. Two nights ago, the payment came due: Both learned that the conclusions of the Or Commission could be damaging to them. When they appeared before the commission in November 2001, differences of opinion between Barak and Ben-Ami became apparent. Differences in their personal temperaments were also plain to see: Ben-Ami came across as defensive, vulnerable and offended by assertions that he treated the public security ministry as a part-time job. When Barak took the witness stand, he was solid and sure of himself, and even offered advice to the members of the panel.

Barak departed for the October 2000 visit to Nazareth right after having met with leading figures from the Arab community. It was a desperate attempt at reconciliation, during which the prime minister told them of a five-year plan being formulated by his office, which would provide NIS 2 billion for improvements in the Arab sector. The guests left the meeting satisfied: Not just because of the promise of financial assistance, but because government representatives had admitted that injustices were done to the Arab population and had expressed a candid desire to right these wrongs.

The budgets that were promised that day have yet to materialize.

The dolphin parable

At the end of the security cabinet meeting early this week, one of the participants recalled the dolphin parable that Ami Ayalon is fond of telling. When he was doing some advanced training in the navy, Ayalon spent some time at the American fleet's officers' training school, where he learned that dolphins could be trained - taught specific information or habituated to respond in a desired manner to certain stimuli - by means of electric shocks. But as soon as the electric shocks reach a certain peak level, the dolphin loses all the information it has stored up until then; any subsequent electric shocks, whether they are weak or strong, will not induce the animal to produce the learned response.

Arafat is like a dolphin, this man who was quoting Ayalon said. The humiliation caused by the government's refusal to lift the siege imposed on him is the electric shock that will erase from his consciousness all the lessons that Israel sought to teach him since the murder of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.

An examination of the Israeli response to the Palestinian Authority's announcement that it had arrested Ze'evi's killers illustrates something important about the way decisions are made in Jerusalem these days. The arrest ostensibly met Ariel Sharon's demand. He could have cited it as proof of the success of his method - that only by exerting pressure on Arafat personally can the desired results be achieved. But when Arafat complied with Israeli expectations, Sharon found himself in exactly the type of political straits that he has been so cautious to avoid up until now: As soon as there is any evidence of Palestinian willingness to meet Israeli demands, the cracks inherent in the structure of Sharon's coalition surface and threaten to destroy it.

This week, Sharon again chose to paper over the cracks with a fuzzy declaration, and his partners on the right and left were relieved to be able to sit back down in their seats, protected by its broadness and ambiguity. Before the final result of the meeting was announced, i.e., the decision to lift the siege of Arafat's compound, but to continue confining him to Ramallah, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer momentarily aspired to take a leadership role. In talking with the heads of the Shin Bet and of army intelligence, he received support for his view that Israel ought to be more generous toward Arafat for having arrested Ze'evi's killers. The defense minister held the opinion that Arafat should be allowed to move freely throughout the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and also be permitted to go from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, and to travel abroad. He regretted the original decision to keep Arafat confined in Ramallah, and the tortured saint status the Palestinian leader acquired as a result. He was also furious that all the effort he'd been making to bring about a lull in the violence was about to be torpedoed because of a refusal to restore Arafat's freedom of movement. He tried to convince Sharon to accept his position, but failed.

An earlier meeting between the two was marked by sharp differences of opinion. Sharon then decided to bring the issue before the cabinet. At the cabinet meeting, Ben-Eliezer was transformed from a tiger into a kitten. Shimon Peres, too. The defense minister did talk about the negative impact that the emerging decision to keep Arafat restricted to Ramallah would have, but he did not make any effort to exercise Labor's political muscle in order to compel Sharon to take the party's position into consideration. He did not threaten a coalition crisis, he did not request a recess in order to hold a consultation with the entire party faction and he expressed readiness to back down from his original position and to agree to let Arafat travel all over the West Bank, but not to Gaza or abroad.

The impression of those present at the meeting was that Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter also did not press his view that it was vital at this point to allow Arafat to move about freely. If this impression is correct, it begs the question of how reliable the assessments of the heads of the intelligence branches are and to what degree they are influenced by the prime minister's positions or expectations. At any rate, Sharon managed to impose his will on the cabinet members. None other than Shimon Peres stepped up to polish the wording of the decision so that all of the participants could unite around it.

Throughout the meeting, Sharon kept glancing over at Avigdor Lieberman. He was obviously intent on preventing Lieberman from carrying out his threat to resign from the government should a decision be made to lift the siege of Arafat. The prime minister ignored the stance of the Labor ministers. Sharon refused to let Arafat leave Ramallah, completely ruled out the possibility of letting him go to Gaza and consented to a formula that gives him all the authority to determine the context and timing of any future decision to allow Arafat to travel abroad.

The head of the Shin Bet insured himself against any prospective criticism about the assessments and recommendations he presented to the cabinet: He warned of an upswing in the terror curve as a consequence of the decision to continue restricting Arafat's movements. Ben-Eliezer covered himself by issuing an even more explicit warning: He predicted that the decision would lead to bloodshed on the Israeli side because of the furious response that was sure to come from the outraged Palestinian side.

Afterward, Ben-Eliezer justified his behavior by saying that since Sharon and the right-wing ministers have a majority in the cabinet, there was no point in confronting them. He feels that he had no choice but to be content with the compromise decision that was reached: to withdraw the tanks from around Arafat's compound, to let the PA leader move about Ramallah and to leave open the possibility that he might soon be allowed to go out of the city. Under the circumstances, the decision was a step forward compared to the positions that Sharon brought to the meeting, the defense minister maintained.

The next day, when the shooting attacks resumed and attempts to carry out mass terror attacks in Haifa and Jerusalem were foiled, Ben-Eliezer felt like saying, "I told you so." He knew that Marwan Barghouti, Arafat's militia chief, was behind the attacks.

Sharon had an entirely different explanation for the turn of events: The Palestinian Authority had asked Israel to tone down its military activity for three days out of respect for the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha ("the feast of the sacrifice"). Israel was willing to comply, provided that the PA did the same for the three days of the Purim vacation. Israel fulfilled its part, the PA did not - four Israelis were killed during the Purim holiday.

An unhatched egg

While Shimon Peres was still trying to fine-tune an agreement with Abu Ala on an interim accord, the Saudi plan, which calls for the achievement of a final status agreement, suddenly emerged to compete with the foreign minister's approach. The common political denominator - as opposed to the personal interest - that has thus far enabled the prime minister and foreign minister to serve in the same government was the lesson both took away from Ehud Barak's failure to reach an accord with the Palestinians: A final status agreement is not immediately attainable; therefore, an interim agreement should be pursued. Also, Israel need not oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Peres translated this understanding into the plan of action manifested in the document he drew up with Abu Ala: The parties shall seek an interim agreement whose primary element is the establishment of a Palestinian state, with the thornier issues - the status of Jerusalem, borders, the Palestinian demand of the right of return - to be clarified at later stages of negotiations. All the interim accords that were discussed in the past were based on the premise that the establishment of a Palestinian state would only occur at the end of the dialogue process. The Peres-Abu Ala plan turns this on its head and calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state as a first step that would act as a catalyst and cause the other sections of a comprehensive accord to follow in stages.

Peres continues to hold contacts with Arafat's emissaries in an effort to promote the plan he outlined with Abu Ala. He still believes that Arafat constitutes the main focus of power in the PA (even though Arafat does not have total control over what occurs there) and that the optimal course is to reach understandings with him.

Unlike Sharon, who would like to see Arafat removed from a position of influence and to nurture an alternative Palestinian leadership, when the foreign minister meets with Arafat's aides, he is careful not to stir up any discord between them and hopes to attain Arafat's backing for whatever agreements are formulated. Then along came the initiative from the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and hit Peres like a slap in the face. Instead of an interim accord, it calls for a final status agreement, and not sometime in the distant future, but right now. It does not call for an Israeli-Palestinian accord alone, but for peace between Israel and the entire Arab world.

To the foreign minister's credit, it should be said that he was the first in the Israeli administration to respond positively to the Saudi proposal. He openly welcomed it and, in doing so, spurred Sharon and the other members of the government to voice some opinion of it. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer followed in his footsteps and expressed support for the Saudi idea. For now, the news from Riyadh is still purely of a virtual nature: words that were spoken to a journalist, which have not been backed up with a practical political plan.

In contrast to the media involvement in the public dialogue that developed between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat after secret contacts had already taken place between Moshe Dayan and Hassan Tohami, the Egyptian president's right-hand man, Tom Friedman's revelations of what he was told by Prince Abdullah were thrown out there with no prior preparation or warning. When prominent American news anchors Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters mediated between the Egyptian leader and the Israeli prime minister in 1977, they played a technical, though vital, role in creating the atmosphere that paved the way for Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem.

The function that The New York Times columnist played last week in quoting the Saudi position is similar, but of different value: His report was not designed to provide a seal of approval for secret moves that had already taken place, but to create an as yet unborn political process out of mere talk.

If, from the Saudi perspective, the proposal might be likened to an egg that has yet to hatch, on the Israeli side, the egg is already hard-boiled: A government that threatens to come apart over a debate on lifting the travel restrictions on Arafat is not capable of dealing with a proposal for a complete withdrawal from the territories, even if it means peace with the entire Arab world.