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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has nothing to lose from the cease-fire. If all is smooth sailing it will prove that his demand to replace the Palestinian leadership was correct. If it runs aground, it will prove that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is still at the helm.

If the shooting stops, personal security will improve and the economy will recover. If the shooting continues, the public will realize that there is no one to talk to and will accept more economic decrees submissively.

In either case, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the territories and more work on the separation fence will determine the borders of the Palestinian Bantustan, Sharon's revised version of apartheid South Africa's puppet states.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, has quite a lot to lose from the cease-fire, either from its success or its failure. Key Fatah activists are saying they are giving him and the hated Muhammad Dahlan, his security chief, a long rope.

If the cease-fire fails, they will hang the rope from the Israeli partners and slip the noose around the necks of those who led others astray. And if the weapons are collected, the wanted men are arrested and the violence wanes, Abbas and Dahlan will be required to supply the merchandise - the end of closures and of assassinations are nothing but packaging. The real merchandise is a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, with exchanges of territories, and Jerusalem as its capital.

However, when U.S. President George Bush wondered in Aqaba how essential is Netzarim, Sharon pretended not to hear. As far as he is concerned, evacuating settlements, if ever, is an issue for 10 years time, if not more. The times are long gone by when the Israeli public, including many who defined themselves as "leftists" less than three years ago, believed that peace is the key to security.

Since the outbreak of the intifada in September, 2000, and even more so since the terror attacks of September, 2001, the assumption that security - "the fight against terror" - is the key to peace has become firmly rooted.

Thus the old equation of "territories in return for peace" has slipped out of fashion. If the occupied territories are supposed to be handed over in exchange for peace, and if peace will be achieved only after security is achieved, then at this stage there is no point in talking about territories.

Over half a year ago the members of the quartet reached the conclusion that shortcuts to a permanent status agreement could lead to a dead end. Their road map, and the brand-new security arrangements engendered by it, succeeded in taking off, for the moment, from the place were previous initiatives were grounded because it was a runway and not a destination.

In order for the Clinton formula, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon understandings or the Beilin-Abed Rabbo document to become papers of any value, a revolution of consciousness and politics will have to happen in Israel. This will be possible only after there is a separation of forces and relative calm.

The life expectancy of the hudna (tactical cease-fire) now looks longer, because for the first time a number of circles of influence have been closed.

The international circle of mainly the United States and the European Union has narrowed down the possibility of the hostile sides maneuvering between the two.

The adoption of the Saudi plan by the Arab League more than a year ago closed the regional circle and paved the way to a certain amount of Syrian pressure on the Hamas and the rejectionist organizations.

Internal Palestinian circles closed around Arafat when 13 top members of the Fatah decided the time had come to push aside the reason, or the excuse, for the humanitarian, political and economic disaster in the territories.

The appointment of Abbas as prime minister proved the major importance of the fourth circle - the government of Israel. Abbas would not have gone far without Sharon's blessing. It is possible the prime minister gambled on Arafat sabotaging Abbas and getting the road map out of his way. However, after the president of the United States embraced the new prime minister and the map, it is difficult to stop the snowball and go back to the familiar and dangerous game of throwing it at the rival's door.

The cease-fire is playing with fire. In order to limit the danger that it will lead to a third intifada, worse than its predecessors, all the sides involved must stay within the bounds of the current game - stopping the violence and incitement on one side, and stopping construction of Jewish settlements and the separation fence on the other.