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Maybe Ariel Sharon can pat himself on the back for one major achievement - isolating and personally pressuring Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The tough formulation of recent demands made of Arafat by President Bush and his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice have intensified the psychological, physical and political siege Sharon imposed on Arafat.

But the outcome is liable to blind and mislead Sharon - Arafat's woes do not alter the basis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Potentially it could be transformed from limited armed clashes into a fully fledged war, and any removal of Arafat would leave the two sides occupying exactly the same squares on the playing table.

There is little foundation for Israel's assumption that the national dispute with the Palestinians can be reduced to rivalry with one man, Yasser Arafat, and that weakening Arafat would dramatically change the prospect of the two sides forging an agreement.

It is true in the history of various nations that on occasions some leaders have exercised a decisive impact on the course of events. This was true of Britain during the World War II, and of Charles de Gaulle's about turn on French policy regarding Algerian independence.

Our region also had some examples of individual leaders changing history - David Ben-Gurion in 1948, and Anwar Sadat's political courage in 1977. Thus, one might claim that changing the guard in the Palestinian leadership could bring a change in Palestinian expectations, and facilitate reaching an agreement with Israel. In reality, the likelihood of such a transformation is very small.

In a post-Arafat era the Palestinians would continue to seek liberation from Israel's occupation, and their sorrow and frustration from the realization of the Zionist enterprise will still burn in their hearts. Moreover, the policy views that the Sharon government is reinforcing would guarantee that in a post-Arafat era, a majority of Israelis would still refuse to leave the territories. The scars of recent years - flagrant violation of the Oslo accords by the Palestinians, persistent demands for a right of refugee return, the adoption of terror as policy, and increasing dissent and rebellion by Israeli Arabs - will color Israel's responses to Palestinian demands and expectations long after Arafat is gone.

With hindsight it seems Oslo failed because neither side really regarded it as an agreement to end the dispute. Instead, both attempted to maneuver within the Oslo framework to squeeze out maximum benefit. Palestinians never relinquished their dream of erasing the Zionist state from the map of the Middle East, Israelis never abandoned their dream of keeping the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Oslo accords never brought about the only logical compromise - the division of the land of Israel along the lines of the 1967 borders, with both states becoming reconciled to each another's existence.

A major change of spirit and attitude must occur on both sides if they are to change their approaches to the conflict and relinquish their utopian dreams. It is highly unlikely such a change of heart will come from Arafat because of the direct personal pressure on him. Why should he abandon his whole life's dream? He sincerely believes a Palestinian state must supplant Israel and not merely be established alongside it. And if Arafat should disappear from the stage, why should it be assumed that his successor, or the Palestinian people as a whole, will give up a doctrine upon which Palestinians have been reared for three generations?

The same attitude is true of Israel - no Israeli leader has committed himself to return the country to the sane 1967 borders. Sharon's tactical policy of pushing Arafat into a corner is designed to bring the Palestinian people to its knees, rather than to seek reconciliation with them. If a change of leaders is the key to transforming relations between the two peoples, there had better be a switch on Israel's side too.