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The prime minister reminds me of the Palmachnik whose buddies taunt him for not having the guts to jump into the freezing water, but when he finally gets the nerve and takes the plunge, they say he has no character. All along, Sharon's demand for seven days of quiet was branded unrealistic and an excuse not to negotiate, but he stuck to his guns. Suddenly, he jumped. Not only has he agreed to forgo seven days of quiet, but also to negotiate under fire and to lift Arafat's house arrest. Now his extremist ministers are jeering that he has no character.

A Sharon associate explains this zigzag as a sign that Sharon has realized he will never get seven days of quiet with the current step-up in violence. If we have to negotiate under fire, better it be over a cease-fire so we can move on to the Tenet and Mitchell plans more quickly. Sharon has also backed down on his demand for "100-percent results," making do for the time being with "100-percent effort." In this respect, he is toeing the American line. "Now that we've cleaned up some of the refugee camps, Arafat can go in with his forces and wipe out terrorist cells more easily," says this associate.

We would like to believe that behind Sharon's moves is a deeper change in strategic thinking. Such as realizing that the IDF cannot liquidate terror and the more active it is in PA territory, the more motivation there will be to send suicide bombers into the heart of Israel. Such as realizing that the public is not that tough and cannot cope with terror that strikes on a daily basis. Such as realizing that Israel has become a leprous country, too unsafe to set foot in (with the move of the UEFA Cup soccer match to Cyprus dealing a final death blow to our image and tourist industry). Such as realizing that he is plummeting in the polls and without a serious effort to bring peace and security, his political end is in sight. Who knows? Maybe the moment has come in his controversial life that he would rather go down in history as a peacemaker than a man who has gotten Israel mixed up in wars.

It is hard to say whether any of these thoughts have gone through Sharon's mind. But the bottom line, as he examines his own actions, must be that what cannot be achieved by force will not be achieved by more force. Israel cannot afford to reoccupy the territories, rocking the whole region and risking the loss of American support that is so important to Sharon.

Call it tactics or call it strategy, but Sharon has backed down on some of his positions in the wake of American displeasure with Israel's military penetration deeper and deeper into PA territory and Sharon's bullish talk about killing Palestinians. Bush is still reluctant to intervene or step in as a mediator: what happened to Clinton continues to flash before his eyes like a red warning light - not to mention the fact that Bush and company detest Arafat, whom they see as a liar and a person who cannot be trusted. At the same time, Bush has never received a satisfactory answer from Sharon about where Israel is heading.

What has changed, says Zvi Rafiah, an expert in U.S. affairs, is America's fear that the spiral of violence in this country will sabotage its plans for an attack on Iraq. Dan Halperin, another expert in U.S. affairs, says that the Bush administration is beginning to worry about a regional flare-up at a time when Americans are focused on their own security concerns and are ramping up for a global offensive on terror. The Taliban issue is not over yet, Bin Laden and Qaeda have not been licked and America is fearful that mass terror attacks within its borders or against U.S. targets are looming on the horizon.

U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney will visit nine Arab countries before he lands in Israel, and it is clear that the Palestinian problem will be a condition, or major excuse, for supporting or not supporting action against Iraq. Bush will not like it at all if Israel wrecks his plans. So forget guts and character. The issue now is Zinni, who will be flying in before Cheney gets here, with an offer that may be hard to refuse. Moderate physical pressure, we call it around here. But who knows? Maybe some good will come of it.