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The summer of 2004 will be remembered as the season of pretense, in which hollow statements and political survival struggles filled the diplomatic arena. Everyone knows that nothing will happen on the Israeli-Palestinian front until next year, unless one of the horror scenarios of a Palestinian mega-attack, an outbreak of Jewish terror, or an IDF operation gone awry occurs. Meanwhile, time passes with games of let's pretend.

The main players in this political play are worried these days about saving their seats, each in their own way. George W. Bush is campaigning for a second term in a close, emotional political race with an energetic, motivated opposition. Ariel Sharon is struggling inside the Likud to put his friend Shimon Peres back into the Foreign Ministry, while at the same time save his regime and plan to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank. A similar campaign is under way in Fatah, the ruling Palestinian party, between Yasser Arafat and Mohammed Dahlan and his colleagues. The methods are different there - kidnappings, shoving heads into toilets, smashing furniture in a police station - but the meaning is the same.

And until the political fates are sealed, the sides are busy with mutual shmoozing and promises empty of any content. Sharon's excuses about delays in the evacuation of the outposts sound about as credible as Arafat's promises about unifying the security services. The American administration is putting on a lackluster demonstration for both sides. They let the British and Egyptians play with Arafat and present "pressure" on Israel on the matter of the outposts.

It's not a very convincing show if months are being wasted on exactly how many outposts there are in the territories. After all, if they really wanted, they could evacuate the number both sides agree on and then argue about the rest. In the same spirit, the White House postponed sending a team of experts to Israel to oversee the settlement freeze. Washington prefers to deal with that sensitive issue at the resourceless embassy level.

The Prime Minister's Office fills the media with announcements about planning the disengagement that are reminiscent of the distant days of Oslo. Once again, Israelis are meeting with World Bank officials and donor countries, fantasizing about turning Gaza into Singapore and Hong Kong. Peres once tried to get a Fiat car manufacturing plant into Gaza. Now Giora Eiland is trying it out, and once again there's the suspicion that nothing will result from the efforts except press releases and overseas trips by officials. Nobody bothers to ask the Palestinians, and the pretty plans are being woven in a virtual universe, cut off from the Gazan reality of violence, Qassams, assassinations, exposures and destruction.

Every day, Sharon promises that he is determined he won't retreat from the disengagement, and that we are on the verge of an historic breakthrough. But that doesn't fit with what's happening at the uppermost levels of government. Sharon's close adviser and personal foreign minister, Dov Weisglass, is cutting his work load by two-thirds. Benjamin Netanyahu's and Silvan Shalom's office managers are leaving, each for their own reasons. Such an exodus usually signals the end of an administration, or at least a decline in the energy of the reigning government, so they can make do with part-time statesmanship.

In the upcoming weeks, Sharon will try to overcome his rivals in the Likud, and they'll look for cracks in his determination. Everyone will make points ahead of the coming showdown this fall, when the settler compensation law and 2005 state budget will be brought to the Knesset. And if he manages to get over that obstacle and avoid going to early elections, Sharon will keep playing for time until the real decision for evacuation of the settlements in the spring. Only then, perhaps, will the season of pretense come to an end.