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The debate going on behind the scenes in Israel is not necessarily connected to President Bush's "road map." What has suddenly risen to the top of the agenda is the question of whether Abu Mazen's appointment as the first Palestinian prime minister represents an opportunity to stop the terror and put an end to the conflict, or whether it poses a serious danger and the possibility of sliding further down the slippery slope.

This would seem to be an odd question, considering that Israel was among the chief proponents of reform in the Palestinian Authority and the election of a Palestinian prime minister to replace Arafat, who has refused to halt terrorism until today.

The debate spilled over into a meeting of the cabinet, when Military Intelligence chief Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze'evi presented the view of the Israel Defense Forces' intelligence officials on the changes taking place in the Palestinian Authority. The pessimist in the crowd was Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who publicly challenged him.

Farkash-Ze'evi emphasized the opportunity that was opening up and Israel's duty to give it a chance. He made similar remarks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, pointing out that army intelligence would know very quickly whether there was any substance to the hopes pinned on Abu Mazen and his administration.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put a stop to the argument, but where he stood on the matter was not clear.

What are those who caution against Abu Mazen saying?

While they admit that Abu Mazen opposes terror and believes that resorting to violence was a mistake, they argue that now he is mainly seeking a cease-fire (along the lines of the Islamic hudna). The Quartet, and especially British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is demanding that Israel give up "assets" in return for mere declarations and the fact of Abu Mazen's appointment.

Hamas will agree to a cease-fire because this will give the organization a chance to recover from damage inflicted on it by Israel. The danger, say those who espouse this view, is that the time-out will not be utilized to dismantle terror infrastructure by collecting weapons, arresting and trying those who persist in violence and cracking down on incitement.

Later, when negotiations with Israel hit a snag - likely because Abu Mazen holds political views similar to those of Arafat - terror will erupt anew and pose an even greater menace. Israel, they say, cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.

Obviously, denunciation of terror is not enough, and steps must be taken to act against it, in keeping with the recommendations of CIA chief George Tenet. But one suspects that Abu Mazen's opponents in Israel also have a shortsighted political agenda. They would like us to believe that allowing Arafat to remain, even in his weakened state, is better for Israel because that way they won't be forced to make real concessions to resolve the conflict.

The internal Palestinian dispute over Abu Mazen's powers as a prime minister is not over yet. It is still not clear whether he will succeed in putting together a "winning team," and whether the Palestinian security services will be entirely in his hands, or controlled in part by Arafat. Will Arafat be left with enough "pocket money" to block Abu Mazen and torpedo any real agreement with Israel? No less importantly, will Abu Mazen be able to stand up to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which made a laughingstock of Egypt in the recent cease-fire talks in Cairo?

Israel will demand that terrorist infrastructure be destroyed, and justifiably so. The test in this case will not be some theoretical timetable, but actual deeds. And Abu Mazen is not the only one who will have to pass it; Sharon, who is being presented with a historical opportunity, will have to as well.

Israel has also contributed in the past to the failure of agreements, by pushing the Palestinians into a corner. Seeing no way out, the extremists turned to terror and suicide bombings. Now, as victors, the time has come for magnanimity.