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"It is now up to Arafat to present a political initiative, one that will show that the Palestinians have a peace plan. The initiative will prove that Sharon has no such plan. This is the only way Arafat will be able to make up somewhat for the political defeats he has sustained since September 11."

The statement above was not voiced by a despairing Israeli leftist; it appeared in an article by a Lebanese publicist in Al-Mustaqbal, the newspaper published by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The article is perhaps one of the more moderate that have appeared in the past few days about the "Palestinian dilemma" and the proper - that is, political - way to bring about its resolution.

A far sharper tone was adopted on the same day by Jubran Tawini, who, in his paper, Al-Nahar, lashed out furiously at the events of "Jerusalem Day," which was initiated by the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon. Tawini expressed his outrage at the large-scale parade in which the marchers of the organization carried photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini and of Iran's present supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and chanted Iranian and Arab slogans in support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"These sights, which some want to ascribe to Lebanon, have absolutely nothing to do with Lebanon. What they [Hezbollah] did does not represent Lebanon, neither its Muslims, nor the distinguished Shi'ite community. True, we are on the side of the Palestinians and we must be on the side of the Palestinian leadership, which is represented by Yasser Arafat. But I don't think that it is our mission to liberate Palestine or to take the [armed] steps that we heard about in a speech on Friday. How to go about liberating Palestine and building the Palestinian state is the business of the Palestinians," Tawinin wrote.

These are not isolated articles, and one can find more and more like them in the Jordanian and Gulf press. "We are beginning to see a lack of patience concerning all kinds of organizations that are starting to assume the role of states and governments," notes a Jordanian publicist. "It is becoming increasingly clear that these organizations are not only playing into Sharon's hands and harming the Palestinian Authority, but are also causing the countries that `host' them to be labeled `states that support terrorism.'"

The important shift at the formal stage seems to have begun at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the Arab League that took place in Cairo last week. On that occasion, an almost public dispute broke out between Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on one hand, and Syria (and Lebanon) and Iraq on the other. On Thursday, another sharp disagreement emerged between Syria and the PA over the cease-fire, with the representative of the PA rejecting the Syrians' contention that Arafat had surrendered to the pressures of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the United States. Arafat was also reminded, in no uncertain terms, that the strategic depth he once enjoyed in the Arab world no longer exists.

The new discourse that is developing in the Arab states about the Palestinian question is, for the time being, following a bipolar track: On the one hand, Arafat is getting slammed, while on the other hand, Sharon is, of course, the source of all wrongdoing. Barely discernible in the midst of all this is a plea to the Israeli public, to Israeli intellectuals and to the society, which is perceived as a committed body on which it is fruitless to rely. In the eyes of the Arab writers, Sharon and Israeli society are indistinguishable.

"Look at the turning point that is taking place here," an Egyptian intellectual writes, trying to find a straw to which to cling. "The only society that is not undergoing soul-searching, that is not trying to clarify what the new world order is after the events of September 11, that is still locked into its mental bomb shelters, is the Israeli society. Islam is trying to examine where it went wrong; the Arabs are licking their wounds; and the Palestinians are shifting into a new phase. It's only from you that we hear nothing, apart from Sharon's declarations and the threats of [cabinet Minister Avigdor] Lieberman. Your public is mute."

The fact that Israeli intellectuals have turned their backs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be understandable, but it is no longer acceptable. Articles by Arab publicists cannot remain unanswered, just when they are looking for an Israeli echo to the change that has occurred in their way of thinking. Criticism of Sharon for not allowing Arafat to travel to Bethlehem to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is no more than a response at the tactical level of public relations. It emerges out of concern for a narrow interest that was once called propaganda.

Maybe the time has come to step out of the bomb shelters and come up with an alternative to Sharon's laconic reactions of fire. There are people waiting to hear it on the other side.