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Who said that we lack a strategic plan? This is the question Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will pose rhetorically during a cabinet meeting scheduled for today or later this week and to be devoted to Israel's objectives in its showdown with the Palestinians. Israel's policy aims are to snuff out Palestinian violence, prevent a tailspin leading to regional war and preserve its special relationship with the United States.

Pursuing these ends, Israel should follow its present course in its management of the crisis with the Palestinians; it should stand firm and not surrender to terror, Sharon will say. But I'm willing to listen to any good ideas, he will add, with a touch of amused irony.

Countering Sharon's contentions, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will argue that Israel's goal is to forge a piecemeal agreement, the first stage of which will count as a third-phase redeployment. We must show some sensitivity toward the suffering endured by the other side, he will say. Arafat is now ready to reach an agreement; Abu Mazen is prepared to show flexibility on the issue of the right of refugee; we should strike now, while the iron is hot, the foreign minister will declare.

It's good that the government has got around to staging this strategic discussion, Minister of Science, Culture and Sport Matan Vilnai will say. For some time I've been demanding that it be held. Though I support all the measures undertaken by the security establishment in the effort to prevent terror attacks, these moves must be made as part of a grand masterplan, Vilnai will add.

Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik will demand that Israel withdraw unilaterally from the territories. This unilateral pull-out should be Israel's policy goal in its confrontation with murderous Palestinian terror. A panel of security experts should be formed to work on the particulars of this plan, so that it can be put in motion as quickly as possible, Itzik will say.

Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky will argue that as long as the Palestinian people do not undergo a process of democratization, there's no chance of encouraging their willingness to become reconciled with Israel. Current Palestinian aggression derives from the dictatorial bent of the PA regime that holds sway in the territories and foments a perception of Israel as a satanic enemy to be battled and beaten. By cultivating such a perception of Israel, Arafat deflects local attention away from the corruption and inefficiency of his regime. The Soviets acted in the same fashion, Sharansky will charge.

National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Public Security Minister Uzi Landau and Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri will all claim that their colleagues are ignoring the reality of the situation: Arafat, they will argue, is a truculent foe who cannot come to terms with the existence of Israel and seeks to annihilate it. He is no partner for any sort of peace agreement dialogue; and his end should be Israel's policy objective, they will argue. Israel's strategy should be to liquidate the Palestinian Authority, restore full Israeli security control over Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip and deliver a mortal blow to armed Palestinian groups, rendering them forever disinclined to raise a hand against Israel.

Sharon will adjourn the meeting on an obsequious note. This was an exchange of ideas of unrivaled import, he will say. I've learned a lot from it. Proposals that have been presented should be studied and digested, and a way should be found to turn them into practical policy. Perhaps a special ministerial committee ought to be established to draft conclusions. Later on, Sharon will convene the government for another strategy session.

The day after the meeting, Palestinian violence will continue to disrupt and damage Israel; and Israel will strike back against Palestinians in its usual fashion. The confrontation will stick to its settled course.

The government's internal divisions and disagreements do not constitute the sole reason why it is unable to set out its goals in the stand-off against the Palestinians. There is also the matter of cognitive rigidity and a failure of leadership. The government does not need a strategic plan, but rather a whole new way of thinking and feeling. It must come to terms with the reality that is privately apparent to most of its members, who dare not bring it to their lips in a public utterance: Israel's audacious bid to swallow up the territories culminated in a complete failure.

The settlement movement was a tragic mistake. Furthermore, the Olso accords, laden with the hope of achieving a rapprochement with the Palestinian people, have proved to be a chimera: The Palestinians (and this includes a growing number of Israeli Arabs) are not reconciled with Israel's existence and have not relinquished the demand for a right of return within its territories. To ensure the realization of the Zionist idea will continue, Israel must withdraw to its 1967 borders and prepare itself to defend them.