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Toward the end of the month, as it does every year, the UN General Assembly will convene. The UN provides livelihoods for a large staff of officials, experts, consultants and aides, whose tired bones flop into business class seats - that's the UN rule on any flight longer than three hours - on their way to yet another conference on the suffering of the world's distressed.

The champions of distress are the Palestinians, and they also have a representative in the UN: Yasser Arafat's nephew, Nasser al-Kidwa. His credentials were signed by Foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi, because Kidwa represents the PLO and only incidentally the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas' resignation on Saturday saved Kidwa a headache; what should he do if his uncle's rival, the elected prime minister, insists on attending the General Assembly with all due pomp and circumstance and also insists on speaking. Abbas might yet retract his resignation, if his conditions are met, but it is practically certain Arafat won't allow that before the UN General Assembly session.

After 1982, Menachem Begin spoke of the Palestinian "two-legged animal" - before then, Begin only referred to Nazis that way. Since then, the Palestinians and even their leader have been given a kashrut stamp by Israel. However, just before they guaranteed themselves a state, they discovered it is a lot more difficult to function as a two-headed entity, indeed a three-headed one if Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is counted.

During the Oslo process, Yitzhak Rabin was working toward reaching an agreement with the animal's head, Arafat. It was the approach of a chief of staff and defense minister, certain his troops would obey his orders, even if it was after an argument and explanation and some indecision. The assumption built into that approach was that Arafat is the supreme commander of the Palestinians, so he can and will want to achieve a similar result on his side.

That's why Rabin skipped over the public leadership in the territories, not only the civilian activists who belonged to the joint delegation with Jordan, but also the field commanders of the intifada. Rabin became fed up with the middle ranks and hoped to achieve what he wanted from the head, but Arafat was and remains first of all the head of the PLO, the head of the Palestinian national movement, wherever it is, including outside the territories and he did not deliver the goods in the deal with Rabin and Rabin's heirs.

Instead of Arafat, the U.S. administration and the Israeli government, with lukewarm support from Arab and European statesmen, tried a new head, more moderate than Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas. An agreement with him would force Sharon to accept an American dictate and watch as a Palestinian state, in "provisional borders" is established. Israel's borders have also been temporary since 1948's cease-fire agreements, but the inalterable fact will be the establishment of the Palestinian state. More than ever, that state is within reach, but for the hand to reach out to pluck it, the head has to give the order, and the head can't be Arafat.

A senior Israeli defense official, who knows the Palestinian leadership well from much contact with it, yesterday listed Abbas' headaches by their rank: First of all Arafat, then Hamas, and only third, Israel, as a result of its lack of political generosity before there was any improvement in security. If, for good or bad, agreements are achieved in the Arab world with the head, then the tip of the political means, like the military tip, is necessarily aimed at the very top of the pyramid.

As opposed to Hamas, Arafat's position is much more difficult. He is fighting for his political life and has nowhere to go until the storm blows over. Hamas has a tomorrow, because it is ready to sacrifice pawns, if not the queen; rank and file, if not the head. An all-out war, which threatens its existence as an organization, forces it to make difficult decisions. Israel will bleed and suffer from it but Hamas could lose everything. This time it is a war of the heads, and the daily price, as always, will be paid by the passersby.