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Conversations with a number of ministers yield a sorry picture of the situation: None has a clue what Sharon wants or what is his final goal. He does not involve them in any strategic moves, and more than once, they've found out from the media what they are supporting. Cabinet-shmabinet, said one cabinet member, Sharon's acting by himself and nobody understands the mechanism. Here and there, the cabinet vetoes some operation - like two suggestions for drastic moves in the north - but in such cases, there's suspicion that Sharon actually wanted to be restrained.

What Sharon does do is report about a lot about things that are convenient for him to do so - like his "far-reaching coordination" with the American administration. But not all the ministers are convinced about the accuracy of his reports. The rules of the game in America changed after September 11, and they fear another suicide attack. Focused on eliminating Saddam Hussein, it is very important for them that friendly Arab regimes remain stable. And the first condition for that is to lower the intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or as spoken Hebrew calls it, "lowering the flames." The Arab street, burning with hatred for Israel and America, has reached a boiling point, and could turn Saddam into no less a martyr than Arafat. Therefore, the limits to the games Israel can play with America are very narrow.

The failure of Powell's mission begins with Sharon not responding to Bush's demand for an immediate withdrawal from Area A. When Sharon encounters a secretary of state who was once a general - Haig during the Lebanon War, and Powell now - he tends to believe that general-to-general, they give him the room to maneuver that only they, as military men, can understand. And when they say "immediately withdraw," he's like the lady in the old joke, who tells the man beside her in the movie theater that if he doesn't remove his hand from her lap in half-an-hour, she'll call the cops. Maybe Sharon pretended to understand that Powell, less forceful than Bush, gave him an extension. By doing so, he contributed in no small degree to Powell leaving with empty hands.

An initial summary of Operation Defensive Shield yields pros and cons.

l From a purely military perspective, it was an impressive demonstration of the IDF power, showing that no refugee camp or built-up area is immune. There was wide-scale capture of wanted men, exposed arms manufacturing workshops and munitions caches. But the phrase "eliminating the terrorist infrastructure" is misleading. What's the terrorist infrastructure when anyone can become a suicide bomber?

l Isolating Arafat and destroying the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure resulted in the exact opposite of Sharon's goals. Instead of eliminating Arafat, it sent his stature soaring sky-high, making him more relevant than ever. Isolating him on the one hand, and destroying the PA on the other, made irrelevant our demands that they fight the terror. As Saeb Erekat said, "they smashed our authority and got 3.3 million authorities instead."

l Israel was turned from a victim of terror into an aggressor accused of a massacre. We know that's not true, but pictures always win. The entire world is demonstrating against us and considering economic sanctions. As far as the peace and security that Sharon promised is concerned, we're a hundred times worse off now than when he was elected.

The two peoples and their leaderships are in a boxer's clinch, that classic pose of exhaustion when the two fighters cling to one another in the hope of gaining some time. Sharon's proposal for a regional conference is also an attempt to buy some time just as long as we don't reach the real point - the necessary move of ending the occupation and dismantling the settlements.

A military operation's success is measured by the change in the political reality - and that's not on the horizon as long as Sharon doesn't upgrade from the mentality of a paratroop officer to that of a statesman of the caliber of Menachem Begin, who against the wishes of his party, set the standard of peace in exchange for land and settlements. In the test of the results of his national leadership, Sharon is very close to his end.