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When Ariel Sharon dealt out the posts in his new government, he announced he would be leaving the chairmanship of one ministerial panel (in addition to the security cabinet) in his hands - the one in charge of handling issues related to the Arab sector.

His decision could perhaps be seen as a sign of his intentions to devote special attention to improving the state's attitude toward the Arab population; however, when one recalls that also after forming his previous government, Sharon voiced promises and made gestures designed to sow hope in the hearts of the Arab public, which proved, in retrospect, to be misrepresentations, an alternative explanation for his unusual decision is called for.

A clue to the countenance of the prime minister can be found in statements he made about a month ago, during the course of a trip of cabinet ministers along the length of the northern contours of the separation fence. Sharon told the ministers that the fence wasn't political; nor was it a security measure, he said. Instead, according to the prime minister, the fence is an additional measure in the war against terrorism, and its construction is likely to boost the involvement of Arab Israelis in accumulating materials and means to be supplied to terror activists from the territories who cross it.

In saying so, Sharon, in fact, presented a prospect more grim than any heard before: In his opinion, the Arab sector is starting to collaborate with the Palestinian terror.

Additional clues to the prime minister's state of mind have been provided by the Arab population itself: Over the past week, we have learned of a series of instances in which Israeli citizens from among the Arab minority have been involved in the planning and execution of deadly terror attacks: Three youths from Jaljulya were arrested on suspicion of setting up an explosive laboratory; three young men from Kafr Manda are being held as suspected Islamic Jihad members who allegedly planned a terror attack in the Haifa area; and during the rally in Umm al-Fahm to mark Land Day, there were calls for Saddam Hussein to bomb Tel Aviv with chemical weapons.

And to top it all, legal proceedings were concluded this past week against two members of the Bakri family from the Galilee who were found guilty of involvement in the Meron Junction bus bombing (nine fatalities, 51 injuries); while three Israeli citizens - Arabs from Ramle and Lod - were sentenced to lengthy jail terms after being convicted of planning to kidnap an Israel Air Force pilot and hand him over to Hamas.

If the leaders of Israel's Arab public were to pick the minds of the cabinet ministers, they would learn that the latter take a very serious view of the blatant increase in the number of cases in which Arab Israelis have been involved in subversive activities (a 2.5-fold increase between 2001 and 2002 according to figures from the Shin Bet security service).

As far as the ministers are concerned, these are not isolated incidents, but the expression of a trend. As the ministers see it, these are not random criminal incidents, but the reflection of a nationalist and religious state of mind: More and more Arab Israelis are ready and willing to undermine the laws of the state and take up arms against its Jewish citizens. And if this is the view of the rank-and-file ministers, it is all the more so the view of the prime minister, who, already 45 years ago, tended to perceive the Arab minority as a hostile element.

The leaders among the Arab public are making light work of it when they argue that percentage-wise, involvement in acts of terror on the part of Arab Israelis is negligible, that the overwhelming majority of the Arab sector is law-abiding, and that the Jewish population is judging the phenomenon in racist terms. They are unaware both of the objective significance of the spectacle - a militant, young generation of a downtrodden nationalist minority that does not accept the Zionist definition of Israel - and of the subjective manner in which it is perceived by the Jewish majority and its leadership, who see a threat to the existence of the state as the national home of the Jewish people.

They back off from any confrontation with the Islamic Movement, the principal hothouse from which the terror cells evolve; and they are afraid even to embark on a campaign that would label collaborators with the Palestinian terror as outcasts who could spell disaster for the Arab public.

In such a manner, the Arab Israeli leadership is paving the way for Ariel Sharon to act as he sees fit.