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So, Arafat, Abu Mazen, Sharon and Peres meet in the Muqata. Is this the opening of a new joke? No, it's soon to be reality. After all, they promised, things will be much better after the war on Iraq. America will pressure Israel and the Palestinians, there will be a new Palestinian government, Arafat will retire to the Ramallah mountains, and Sharon will finally make those "painful concessions."

Indeed, the road map is already spread out on a wobbly table, a Palestinian prime minister was born after a long, painful cesarean section, and a U.S. secretary of state - the fifth or sixth inscribed in the Peace Process Annals - is coming to Israel. Maybe a bottle will be cracked open, there will be a speech, or at least a news conference. And then - surprise - everything will be the same as it was.

Yasser Arafat, who begat the Palestinian prime minister, is already smacking the newborn for attempting to usurp his security authorities. The Israeli prime minister is suddenly giving postholiday interviews in which he again promises concessions "yes, yes, this term." The old Labor's phoenix raises his weary bones again from the ashes. In the territories, the settler leaders are donning their war helmets. That's the beauty of re-runs - you know the ending and you don't have to watch every single episode.

Until now the public has busied itself with trying to figure out the Sharon enigma. Does he want to and is he capable? Does he want to but isn't capable? Is he capable and doesn't want to? Maybe he doesn't want to and isn't capable anyway?

Now comes the turn of the Arafat enigma again. "The lion's last roar," roared Newsweek's cover story last week. Last roar? Politicians of Arafat's age and vintage don't have last roars. What sounds to foreign ears like a roar is recognized here as the sound of another opportunity crashing to earth. Arafat had no intention whatsoever of letting a Palestinian prime minister he created be anything more than his vicar on earth.

Otherwise, why did he insist on curbing Mohammed Dahlan's powers? Why did he hasten to set up a supreme security council that will answer to him and control three or four of the important security arms? What was the significance of the verbal blows he exchanged with Abu Mazen? Arafat says if they want Abu Mazen as prime minister, they can have him as prime minister - as based on the model in all Arab states. Like Ali Abu al-Ragheb in Jordan and Ataf Obeid in Egypt, let Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian Authority be a senior operational official acting in the name of the real leader.

Does anyone think a palace revolution has taken place in the Muqata, and the plug blocking the flow of the peace process has finally been pulled? Let them know that in order to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians without Arafat, there must first be a Palestine - a state - so that it and not the PLO can sign the agreement. As long as the PLO is the representative body, Arafat will continue to deal the cards.

In its absurdity Israel recognizes a Palestinian government and prime minister, but not a Palestinian state. A state could be established without Israel's recognition - but then, it would not be possible to sign a peace agreement with it. How can you sign an agreement with a state you don't recognize?

On the other hand, if a Palestinian state is set up with Israel's blessing, Arafat's name will be on that agreement. According to the amendments in the Palestinian constitution that enabled Abu Mazen to be elected prime minister, every agreement in foreign policy - including those with Israel - must also bear Arafat's signature. Without it, an agreement would be invalid.

And so, behind every twist and turn in the expected political process, Arafat pops up and threatens to drag the road map off the table. The Palestinian government has been changed - fulfilling another precondition - but in fact the political process will continue to slide off Arafat's back as it slides off Sharon's. Each will guarantee the other that the process will remain stuck in the same place. Colin Powell, welcome!