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The postponement of the summit meeting between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas until after the holidays was actually good news. While emissaries and go-betweens deal with trivial matters, whether to let the Palestinians have bullets or guns and what level of prisoners are to be released according to what "seniority" and the amount of blood on their hands, a threat of missed opportunity hovers above. President Bush indeed solemnly stated two years ago to a Palestinian delegation that God had told him: "George give the Palestinians a state," but that is not enough.

The Palestinian state and/or the end of the conflict here depend on the leaders of both peoples. Arafat was not a partner, and could not be a partner, because he did not want to reach an agreement. But the reins are now in the hands of two veteran and experienced horsemen, with more than a hundred years of experience between them in the struggle between the two peoples, who are striving for a peaceful resolution. And they were supposed to get together for a private conversation. Without stenographers, without advisers and lawyers, without written documents, without formal undertakings with the objective being to soberly agree on what each can or cannot do.

Before going into details, they need to establish where they wish to and can be at the end of the process. In other words, to begin the conversation from the end. Some of Israel's greatest past achievements ended in success because the leaders knew in advance how they would turn out. Peace with Egypt, for example. Mahmoud Abbas' statement that he is weak, and therefore we must be magnanimous, help him and cut him some slack, is really off base. Sharon certainly exudes power and belligerence, but he is not omnipotent, either. He did indeed carry out the disengagement from Gaza, but a few dozen voters shifting from here to there at the central committee convention and he would have been ousted from the leadership. This indicates that it is not enough for Abu Mazen to demand consideration; he, too, must take into account the fact that Sharon is limited and not omnipotent. Abu Mazen is headed for elections in January, and Sharon is headed to primaries in April, at the very latest. In their private meeting, they need to decide how to help each other.

My contribution, Sharon can say, is that I have proved that a majority of the people is willing to compromise and has been weaned of the dream of a Greater Israel. The Palestinian rationale needs to be that you cannot destroy the State of Israel. Unfortunately, you have not reached that point yet. You've got organizations that are gearing up to resume the third intifada. My honorable Mahmoud, Sharon would say, it is unfortunate that our resilience has yet to be seared into your consciousness. It will not bring about a major unilateral disengagement; at most it can finish me off. And there is nobody besides me who can make painful concessions. See what global prestige the evacuation of Gaza brought us. That's how you all will look when you put your extremists in their place.

Between the coffee and pastries, Sharon can switch to a more personal note: Listen, what is most important is that you learn from us of what we are and are not capable. We have to be sticklers, because we are a law-abiding country. We cannot "strengthen you" by releasing prisoners who murdered innocent children and women. We cannot accept that Hamas, an entity that was declared by the greatest superpower in the world to be a terrorist organization, and which sows hatred of Jews and launches Qassams, should participate in the elections and be in the government. That would be like the new government of Iraq bringing Al-Qaida into the coalition.

Here we are having an open conversation, Sharon will go on to say. Teach us what we can expect from you and make use of me to learn the rules of a democratic country so that you will understand what I can and cannot do. The late Yitzhak Rabin used to be jealous of the fact that you rule without High Court of Justice petitions and without the human rights advocates of B'Tselem. But that's not the sort of state for which you should be wishing.

The talk between these two veteran leaders ought to begin at the end and unfold backward. Instead of squabbling over the number of bullets and prisoners, they must reach a private understanding in advance on how to reach an agreement on the issue of the Palestinian right of return and on resolving the matter of Jerusalem, so as to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Both leaders have limited credit of no more than a year before they leave the stage. Apres les le deluge.