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From the day the Bush Administration began to function, there has been a debate between the U.S. and its Arab allies on the question of who is more dangerous to the stability of the Middle East. The Americans point to Saddam Hussein, with his missiles and his bacteria. The Saudis and the Egyptians claim that the problem is Ariel Sharon and his intention of crushing the Palestinian Authority and perpetuating the occupation and the settlements.

Vice President Dick Cheney is coming to the region this week to discuss the two issues - Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In anticipation of his arrival, Saudi Arabia is proposing a deal to the U.S. - you take Saddam, and give us Sharon. In other words, we won't interfere with the change of regime in Iraq, if the peace process is renewed.

George Bush Sr. reached a similar understanding before the Gulf War, and paid Saudi and Egypt with the head of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was led to the Madrid Conference, and afterward was deposed from government. Now a new American operation in Iraq is heating up, and the Saudis are trying to charge a price for their support, and to reject the pressure for reform in the most conservative regime in the world. It is convenient for them to deflect interest to the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and thus was born the "Saudi initiative" for complete normalization with Israel, in exchange for withdrawal from all the territories.

In coming weeks, Sharon will conduct a diplomatic battle, in an attempt to stop the American-Saudi deal. There is nothing that frightens him more than American payment to the Arabs by means of Israeli concessions, as he revealed in his "Czechoslovakia speech" in October [where he compared Bush's concessions to the Palestinians to Chamberlain's concessions to the Germans in the 1938 Munich Pact]. During the first days of the Saudi initiative, Sharon sent positive signals, in order to gain time. This week he discovered the plans shortcomings. His updated position is that the initiative must not be turned into an international decision that will replace 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 as a basis for the political process.

For Israel, the Saudi initiative has two advantages. Israel can claim that it won, that its determined stand against terror and its refusal to conduct negotiations under fire forced the Arabs to make a better offer than in the past. The initiative transfers the solution to the conflict to the arena that is convenient for Israel, territories for peace, and ignores the problem of the refugees, and the religious component. It takes into account the lessons of the present conflict. The Israelis will not take in refugees, the Palestinians will refuse to accept the settlement blocs, and the compromise in Jerusalem will be based on the ethnic division in the city.

But Sharon is not interested. The prime minister sees only one thing, his map of security areas in the West Bank, or "buffer zones," as they are now called, in the Jordan Valley and in western Samaria, between which a small Palestinian state with very little sovereignty will be trapped. All his political programs are designed to promote this goal, and nothing has deflected him from it, neither the Oslo accords, nor the waves of terrorism, nor internal political pressures.

Sharon apparently wants to gain time with a limited conflict, with the unity government behind him, until the U.S. attacks in Iraq, or the strategic map changes and new opportunities are opened. If the Palestinians repeat the mistake of supporting Saddam, they will be exposed to a decisive military blow from Sharon, after which they will accept his conditions for an agreement. If Tel Aviv is once again hit by Scud missiles, the Israeli public will support any aggressive move.

And then Crown Prince Abdullah shortened the time schedule. The greatest danger for Sharon is that the Israeli left will recover from the Camp David fiasco, will unite around the Saudi initiative, and will present a political and diplomatic alternative that appeals to the U.S. administration. Abdullah understood this, and therefore told Colin Powell that his proposal was directed at "Israeli public opinion." The internal pressure will increase if the initiative receives the backing of the Arab League at the end of the month, even in a softened version, which will push Israel into the role of the rejectionist.

Sharon understands that, as does Yasser Arafat. During recent days both sides have escalated the fighting. Sharon hopes to beat the Palestinians and to bring them to a cease fire, before the Saudi initiative takes wing. Meanwhile he has American support. Israel emerged without a scratch from Mubarak's visit to Washington. The proposal to bring special envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region remained on the shelf of the frustrated State Department. But even the prime minister knows that the U.S. administration is likely to end its period on the sidelines, and therefore decided that the military operation will continue until Cheney's visit.