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WASHINGTON- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been saying that the main change that has taken place in his persona in recent years is that he has gone through "a school for patience." The results of his sixth visit to Washington indicate that he has been a good student. His stubbornness has gradually led the American administration to support his strong-arm policy.

Long gone are the days when every incursion by an Israeli force into the territories of the Palestinian Authority was accompanied by volleys of criticism from Washington. These days, Sharon calls on President George W. Bush when the Israel Defense Forces is again surrounding the headquarters of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, and the White House proclaims "Israel's right to self-defense." The Americans have refrained from condemning the action, even through back channels.

The prime minister went to the White House to thwart the administration's plans to force his to accept a timetable for withdrawing from the territories, and in order to strengthen the legitimization of the expected expulsion of Arafat. He did not rely on envoys and mediators and decided to speak with Bush himself, less than five weeks after their previous meeting. Sharon figured, with reason, that Bush listens to the last person with whom he has spoken, and wanted to correct the impression left on the U.S. president by the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Anxiety gripped the Arab world and the Saudi foreign minister rushed to Washington with the aim of getting ahead of Sharon, who had left behind two of his aides to make sure that the administration will not be tempted by proposals from Riyadh.

The Israeli side is claiming that the objective was achieved. After 50 minutes with Sharon, Bush dropped all the briefings and position papers prepared by his officials and declaimed, almost word for word, the prime minister's positions. His spokesman had to give an embarrassing clarification, in an attempt to rescue the administration's credibility and bring it back to its prior positions. Sharon retracted his earlier promise to Bush that he would not touch Arafat, and the president responded with silence.

Sharon again made it clear that he would not conduct negotiations under fire, but offered the Americans a "concession" - he is prepared to have the reform in the PA begin while Arafat is still its leader, and negotiations will not have to wait until democracy is established in Palestine. Instead of demanding the replacement of Arafat as a prerequisite for dialogue, Sharon fudged his positions and adopted Bush's formulations to the effect that this is not a personal matter, but a matter of structural and institutional changes. In return, the president conceded to him on the matter of a timetable for beginning the negotiations.

The next step on the diplomatic trail will be a statement from Bush, expected some time in the next few days, on his policy in the Middle East. An Israeli source believes that a draft of the speech has already been written and the main question is how many erasures and corrections will still be made to it. According to the source, Bush will not declare that the 1967 borders must be the basis for an agreement, as the State Department has recommended under pressure from the Saudis.

The president will not get into a confrontation with Sharon. He will throw something declarative to the Arabs and will not pressure Israel on the practical side. Thereafter, Secretary of State Colin Powell will set off on another round of "consultations" in the region and gain more time for the preparation of the regional conference.

All this talk sounds like bureaucratic verbiage that has nothing to do with what is happening on the ground, where Sharon and Arafat are each trying to gain time until the other breaks. Arafat is playing with taking apart and putting together his government and is racing to secure international legitimization before Sharon kicks him out of the territories. Sharon is trying to delay the diplomatic negotiations, before an economic collapse or a security disaster erodes his bargaining power and he has to pay with concessions for every American bail-out.

Sharon is trying to keep all his options open and the visit to Washington has given him a bit more time and freedom of action. Alongside the tough positions he presented and the threat of expelling Arafat, he quietly let Foreign Minister Shimon Peres renew his talks with the Palestinians; perhaps he will succeed in achieving something and perhaps not, but meanwhile the Labor Party will remain in the government.

However, the warning signals from the economy, which has ignored the reassuring message Sharon sent it from Washington, and the continuing terror attacks in the centers of Israeli cities, despite the IDF's actions in the territories, indicate that the moment of crisis is approaching.