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Even among Oslo alumni, there are those, like Foreign Ministry director-general Avi Gil, who agree that when the dust settles, it may turn out that Operation Defensive Shield wasn't such a bad idea. In a discussion with senior ministry officials held the day after he returned from Washington, Gil said the operation had made the Palestinians dismiss any notion of a possible analogy with Israel's withdrawal, under fire, from Lebanon. "They have realized that terrorism makes Israel's positions and responses more extreme, and that it is also wiping out the peace camp."

The increased call within the Palestinian leadership for a soul-searching can also be chalked up to the operation. "The operation opened a window of opportunity for us, in the form of the regional conference," concluded the director-general. "We absolutely must not miss it and the potential it offers us."

The defense minister, Labor Party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, did not suffice with a call to transform the military success into a lever for diplomatic progress. Along with Avraham Burg - a leader of the "peace coalition," which, it is commonly known, is the opposition to the government - he drafted a diplomatic program that is simply a mixture of the Saudi plan, the Taba understandings and the Clinton outline.

Simultaneously, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who belongs to the same party, continues to push the Peres-Abu Ala plan - which is built around the idea of "Mini-Palestine First" - as the only show in town. And new contestant Haim Ramon also has a diplomatic plan. He proposes a line of separation that would essentially annex to Israel not only a majority of the settlers, but also 200,000 Palestinians.

Meanwhile, at the same exact time, as if we were referring to a different country and another government, the incoming Chief of Staff is saying in the United States that the renewed outbreak of armed conflict and the invasion of Gaza is merely a matter of time; the coordinator of IDF activities in the territories explains that the new travel restrictions in the West Bank "are intended to ease the plight of the population"; a new B'Tselem report confirms that right under the nose of the Labor ministers, the settlers are continuing to grab more land.

And what exactly is the prime minister seeing as he peers through the window of opportunity opened by the operation? Or in other words, what potential does Ariel Sharon see in the regional conference?

The answer to that question may be found in a column by Jim Hoagland that appeared in the May 9 edition of The Washington Post. "In any event, the talks this summer will be about `creating the right climate of dialogue and negotiations.' Sharon quickly continued: `This is not the place to negotiate. Political negotiations will be conducted directly between the two parties,' i.e., Israel and Palestine, but only when violence has stopped." Sharon reported that President Bush "agreed with my view that reform is the most important thing." And Sharon let Bush know that Israel would not accept any final settlement based on the Clinton plan, the Taba discussions or the 1967 borders.

What would we be saying about the governing authority of our neighbors if, at the same time as Abu Mazen was announcing, say, his readiness to concede the right of return, Arafat was declaring his insistence on it? Can you imagine the tumult here if Mohammed Dahlan would come out in favor of renewing the armed conflict just as the Palestine Legislative Council was deciding to forbid the directors of the security agencies from giving interviews on policy matters?

And let's suppose that the Palestinians concurred that the conference was not the appropriate place for final status negotiations: Would Israel accept their argument that along with the reforms in the Authority, the conference should also take up another issue of concern to them - a reform of the settlement policy?

The White House is still trying to shape an agenda and objectives for a conference that will fit Sharon's dimensions and will still have enough room left over for Yasser Arafat. They are lowering expectations and already talking about postponing the conference until August and maybe even the early fall. The Americans are consulting with the Saudis, Egyptians and Europeans to see how to take advantage of the window before it closes.

But more than anything else, Bush is paying close attention to his political advisers. They are telling him that Sharon has warned them that any pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians will lead to the breakup of his government. One may assume that he was not referring to pressure from Fuad or Peres. According to the rules of Israeli democracy, senior cabinet ministers are permitted to publicly present plans that may be diametrically opposed to the policies and actions of the government, so long as they do not put the plans - or their own loyalty - to the test, at the cabinet table.