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Yasser Arafat went free on Thursday and left the Palestinians in Israel's hands. Because, with the whole army in the territories, it is no longer possible to distinguish who is really imposing a closure on whom. Is it the Israel Defense Forces that is encircling all the Palestinian locales or is it that those prisoners are unwilling to release the army?

This arrangement was expectable. The frequent entrances and exits that characterized the initial period of the terrorist attacks turned out to be ineffectual both militarily and politically. The feeling was that only by means of a drastic, wide-ranging operation would it be possible to achieve any sort of decisive result. That, however, is not the case.

Even if we assume that henceforth the terrorist attacks will cease completely, the IDF cannot leave the territories. After all, no one will now dare issue the order to leave when it appears that its "presence" is preventing terrorism. This will only seem more necessary if terrorist attacks actually resume.

"Presence," by the way, is one more of those sterile terms that create a feeling of tranquillity, as though we were talking about an army that is leaning pleasurably on a wall, smoking a cigarette and polishing its sunglasses. What we are really talking about is a day-to-day war that includes raids on towns and villages, shooting, arrests, denial of movement and local suffocation.

But this is a war that will soon become boring: how many more "funny" curiosities like the dead Palestinian who fell off the stretcher and started to run can the IDF Spokesman supply us with? And no longer will announcers have to break their teeth over the correct pronunciation of "Muqata."

In the meantime, the building of a fence of separation is taking shape in the form of Israeli soldiers. That is the only "fence" that can fulfill the ideological dreams that seek both separation and preservation of the settlements. Because an ordinary fence that will protect Kfar Sava and Bat Hefer will not be able to protect Efrata and Kedumim at the same time. Even if the settlements agree to wrap themselves in electronic fences with minefields and machine guns, the army will still have to guard them and the roads leading to them. In the situation that has now been created, it is also superfluous to talk about the hundreds of millions that the government wants to spend on the barbed wire and the other accoutrements of the fence.

That money will soon be needed to rebuild the permanent army bases in the territories.

The assumption is that the talk about a political horizon can now be shelved for a lengthy period. The lunatic public appearances by Yasser Arafat do not arouse confidence, and no alternative Palestinian leadership will emerge as long as the Symbol rushes around frenetically, his eyes glittering, and shouts and screams in every direction. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has asserted that he has no intention of discussing the evacuation of even the most isolated settlement.

Both sides know that this is not the season in which to cut political deals. True, each side has merchandise that the other would badly like to get its hands on, but it's not for sale. The Israeli public, according to the latest polls, is now more fearful about the economic situation that it is about the security situation, and if the current quiet persists for any length of time, it will get used to the idea that the IDF's permanent presence in the territories is part of the natural order of things and is worth whatever price it costs.

This, after all, is the same public that was certain that the best way to defend the northern border was by means of a security zone in southern Lebanon and thus acquiesced in an 18-year occupation until one morning the public was amazed to discover that a different solution was possible. The government can count on this public once again as the territories fill up with dozens of security zones - around every settlement and every Palestinian locale. After all, this is the same public that no longer knows whether Ganim and Kadim are in Israel or abroad and is convinced that Netzarim and Negba are two sides of the same coin: both are homeland.

This is the new horizon to which we should accustom ourselves, because there are no rabbits in anyone's hat. Sharon's visit to Washington this week will not be able to foment a revolution. All that can come of the same ideological DNA is the cloning of the same thing.